South Florida labor and worker’s rights organizations are mobilizing their members and calling on state senators to stop a GOP bill that would prohibit Florida cities and counties from passing ordinances that crackdown on wage theft, the practice of stiffing workers out of money they are owed.

The Senate version of the bill — filed by state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs — is on the Judiciary committee calendar for Mon., Jan. 20. State Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, filed the legislation that passed the first vote in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee in early December, and a second vote in a House subcommittee in early January.

People Engaged in Active Community Efforts — aka PEACE, a coalition of 27 religious congregations from Palm Beach County — wrote to all the members of the Judiciary committee Thursday expressing their “sincere hope that you will oppose the bill.”

The letter adds:

We understand Senator Simmons plans on introducing an amendment that would provide for some sort of “courts” solution to the problem of wage theft locally. We know all too well what this so-called solution would look like, given that this is exactly what the opponents to our local Wage Theft Ordinance have pushed here in Palm Beach County. In fact, they have been successful in getting a pilot program up and running, dubbed the “Legal Aid Model,” which essentially refers victims of wage theft to the courts after an attempt at conciliation.

The letter also points to a study released in October that compares the wage theft project of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County with the wage theft program at the Department of Small Business Development of Miami-Dade County. That study found that Miami-Dade received and resolved a larger number of cases than did Legal Aid.

It also found that Palm Beach recovered 2.5 percent of the claim dollars through conciliation; Miami-Dade recovered 45 percent of claim dollars.

South Florida Jobs with Justice, which supports organized labor and workers, issued a press release Thursday calling on its members to contact Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, urging her to kill the bill.

Jobs with Justice writes:

This bill, mis-titled Wage Theft Protection for Employees, does not protect employees but instead takes away the ability of local government to do so. Should the bill pass, workers throughout Miami-Dade County will no longer be able to seek viable help when they work and are not paid. And local governments in other counties won’t be able to step up and help their residences either.

In January, the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy (known as RISEP) at Florida International University released a study that shows that wage theft — employers stiffing workers out of money they are owed — remains a widespread problem that affects millions of Floridians.

The report states what supporters of the local anti-wage theft ordinances have told The Florida Independent before: Existing federal workplace laws do not protect millions of workers, including “hospital, school, or government workers or workers at small, local firms, including contractors for larger companies.” Florida’s minimum wage law also excludes millions of workers “from protections against employers who withhold their earnings.”

The business lobby that supports the Goodson/Simmons bill includes the Florida Retail Federation, which has a pending court challenge against the Miami-Dade anti-wage theft ordinance, and Associated Builders and Contractors.

Samantha Hunter Padgett, deputy general counsel for the Florida Retail Federation, told the Independent in December that her organization supports Simmons’ bill because “existing state and federal laws address the issues raised in local wage theft ordinances.

Jeanette Smith, a registered Republican and a member of the Florida Wage Theft Task Force, opposes Goodson and Simmons’ bill. She tells the Independent that “a large number of employees in Florida do not fall under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, nor any other federal law.”

According to Smith, when opponents of local anti-wage theft ordinances say it’s a federal issue, “they’re assuming people can go to the wage and hours division of the federal department of labor for assistance, and they can’t.”

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