The Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday delayed a vote on a wage theft ordinance that would establish “a procedure for employees victims of wage theft to recover back wages” till June 21.

The board instructed the county attorney to continue to draft the ordinance and track the outcome of a constitutional challenge filed by the Florida Retail Federation against Miami-Dade County’s wage theft ordinance, which prevents employers from cheating workers out of wages they are owed.

The commission agenda shows that:

The issue of wage theft was brought before the Board on October 19, 2010. At that meeting the Board directed the County Attorney to draft a wage theft for preliminary reading. The Ordinance provides for a definition of wage theft and procedures for the filing, conciliation and hearing of wage theft complaints.

The Palm Beach Post reported:

Commissioners said the delay would allow them to review the outcome of the Miami-Dade case before making a final decision.

“I want to make sure that whatever ordinance we finally enact, it will stand up legally in a court of law,” Commissioner Jess Santamaria said. “We don’t want to have an ordinance that in the end is invalidated under normal legal process.”

A November 2010 RISEP Florida International University report on wage theft using data from El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center (2006-2010) located in Jupiter and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Work and Hours Division (2008-2010) shows that Palm Beach county workers reported almost 1,100 cases of wage theft.

The report also indicates that over $940,000 were paid in back wages to Palm beach County workers, but “this assuredly is less than the total amount of wages lost by employees reporting their cases of wage violations to the [Work and Hours Division (aka the WHD)], because a large percentage of South Florida’s agriculture and service workforce are employed in workplaces that are excluded from federal and state labor laws and, consequently, fall outside the jurisdiction of the WHD.”

The Post also reported that “the Business Forum of Palm Beach County, made up of roughly 30 different groups including the Economic Council and the Business Development Board,” opposes the wage theft ordinance because it would add to the county’s budget and “federal and state laws already provide employees protection.”

State Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, who filed a bill that would render local wage theft ordinances useless, also says that federal and state laws protect workers against wage theft violation, a statement disputed by members of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force.

A large number of members of People Engaged in Active Community Efforts (aka PEACE) attended the Palm Beach County Commission meeting to continue their support for passage of the wage theft ordinance. PEACE “is a congregation-based community organization charged with the mission of effectively fighting injustices in the communities of Palm Beach County.”

Last week, Father John D’Mello of St. Ann Catholic Church in downtown West Palm Beach and a member of PEACE, wrote in the Palm Beach Post:

At its most blatant, wage theft consists of hiring short-term laborers and disappearing when it’s time to pay them. But it can mean unpaid overtime or other violations of wage-and-hour laws or contracts. The U.S. Department of Labor has only four wage-and-hour investigators, and their jurisdiction extends only to businesses having $5 million or more in revenue. Florida has no department of labor. Palm Beach County’s Office of Equal Opportunity gets at least a complaint a week about wage theft, but it lacks authority to act.

In theory, if an employer robs you, you can take him or her to small claims court. In practice, that can cost up to $300, and taking time off to pursue the issue can cost victims, in lost wages, the rest they hoped to recover. Victims see the process as hopeless, so they endure the loss.

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