A group of construction workers in Miami Lakes who last week began fighting to receive wages they are owed for several weeks of work will meet today to file a complaint through Miami-Dade County’s anti-wage theft ordinance, a measure under attack in the courts and in the Florida Legislature. (more…)
Early Friday morning, Miami-Dade County Commissioners voted to approve county Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed budget of $6.1 billion, which includes funding to enforce the county’s wage theft ordinance.
According to a press release issued Thursday by the mayor’s office:
“The Wage Theft Ordinance has proven to be an effective tool for promoting economic security and dignity for those working in the County. This is yet another example of how combining resources through collaborative partnerships leads to successful outcomes and achievement of objectives for everyone,” said Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez.
The mayor’s release adds that a collaboration between Miami-Dade County’s Small Business Division — which implements the Wage Theft ordinance — and the U.S. Department of Labor resulted in the recovery of of $147,777 in unpaid wages for 47 employees who were “not covered under federal wage and hour laws but are covered under the County’s ordinance were able to file complaints with SBD and were assisted with the recovery.”
A 2010 Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy report on wage theft indicates that the restaurant, food, construction, health care and social assistance industries show the highest number of reported wage theft cases in South Florida.
During the month of August, a group of restaurant workers organized a series of protests at De Rodriguez Cuba, a restaurant owned by Douglas Rodriguez, to demand their wages for hours worked. According to Spanish-language news outlet Univision Noticias 23, the workers alleged Rodriguez owed them about $21,000.
Juan Carlos Ocampo, a labor activist who supported the restaurant workers, tells the The Florida Independent that support from the Small Business Division helped the employees recover $11,000.
According to the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, in its first year, Miami-Dade County’s wage theft ordinance “has processed 662 claims for a total amount of $1,760,177. Almost $400,000 has been recovered through conciliation and over $300,000 has been awarded through a hearing examiner process. In August alone, the program recovered and collected thru conciliation $52,000 for 109 workers.”
“It’s amazing how many people weren’t yet aware of the program,” says the Task Force’s Jeanette Smith. “While the program has been successful and we appreciate the support we have gotten from local governement, we think this is a unique partnership we have with local government. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the depth and breadth of the problem, and that will take a concerted effort between local government, community and local businesses. I think wage theft is one more thing that hurts small businesses.”
Cynthia Hernandez, a research associate at the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, has extensively studied wage theft. She says wage theft cases, like the one recently exposed by the Independent at a Fort Lauderdale construction project, are “very common”:
Small contractors to even large corporations like Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us have used this method to not pay employees. It happens a lot in construction because there are so many different levels of contractors and subs, which make it even harder for the worker to identify ultimately who is responsible for their pay. I have even heard of sub-contractors (employers) who have been stiffed out of their cut by contractors and as a result, have been late or unable to pay their employees. Until we can actually get some enforcement, this will continue to happen.
South Florida construction workers tell The Florida Independent that about 40 to 45 men, after weeks of being stiffed out of their wages, were paid with checks issued by Florida Shell Construction at the Northwest Gardens worksite on Thursday.
Andres, a worker who asked we not use his last name, tells the Independent, ”We had been talking with Florida Shell, Pozo and BJ&K for two weeks to get our money, but now that [the Independent] wrote these articles things happened very fast.” Three workers who had not been paid for their work at Northwest Gardens told the Independent this week they are struggling to pay rent and cell phone bills, and one did not even have cash for gasoline.
Northwest Gardens is an affordable low-income housing project developed by the Housing Authority of the City of Fort Lauderdale and the Carlisle Development Group.
Nelson, a worker who also asked that we not use his last name, tells the Independent that David Sonk of Pozo Construction, as well as an employee of general contractor BJ&K Construction, were present Thursday while workers were given their checks. He is worried because they already told him they won’t pay him unless he can show a U.S. identification, and they would not make the check out to his wife.
Sonk told the Independent earlier this week that when he hired workers he did not ask for U.S. work authorization information.
Jonathan Fried, executive director of an organization called We Count!, writes to the Independent that “requiring an ID to pay [workers] is illegal if they did the work.”
Fried adds that workers who have not been paid can go to Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor to file a complaint.
Enrique Perez, owner of Florida Shell Construction, tells the Independent today that he’s worked with BJ&K for 23 years and they have always paid workers. ”About 40 workers received their checks [Thursday], and the rest of workers will get their checks today, about 20 to 25 workers,” Perez says.
Perez also says that all workers will be paid, and if someone does not have a U.S. identification, they will need “someone who takes responsibility for that worker, so the check can be made in that person’s name.” He says there will be no retaliation against workers who contacted the Independent or sought legal assistance.
Andres tells the Independent he received his check Thursday for all the hours he was owed. Andres had contacted a lawyer earlier this week to explore his legal options.
Andres says he saw about 40 workers receive checks signed by Florida Shell Thursday evening, but that he also saw people not getting paid because “they lack a [U.S.] identification.”
Jeanette Smith, of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force and Interfaith Worker Justice, told the Independent she met Thursday with Andres to discuss how they could support the workers.
Smith, who was one of many people who worked for the approval of a Miami-Dade county wage theft ordinance, told the Independent that “for a lot of these guys it is a pure miracle that anybody is even offering to pay them so quickly.”
A Florida International University report released in November 2010 indicates that “workers in the construction industry had the second highest number of wage violations” reported in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties from 2006 through 2010. The study did not cover Broward, where the Northwest Gardens project is located.
Carol Bowen, director of government affairs for Florida’s Associated Builders and Contractors, confirmed yesterday that her organization is a member of a coalition of construction groups, with at least 30 members involved in all aspects of building and contracting, that supports the “Wage Protection” bill filed by state Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, and opposes a proposed Palm Beach County wage theft ordinance.
Goodson’s bill would stop cities and counties from passing local laws to help workers recover wages they are cheated out of by employers.
“We are without a doubt against wage theft,” Bowen said. “People who underpay should be punished. They hurt business. There are unscrupulous contractors who low-bid because they plan not to pay their employees, but we believe in streamlined processes and state and federal law already have the authority to deal with these issues.”
Bowen said that after working with the coalition, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach has agreed to address wage theft claims and seek resolution.
“The white-collar criminal division of the attorney general is aware of wage theft and agreed to monitor the situation and work with Legal Aid to handle the cases appropriately,” she said. “This tells me that the existing laws allow the people affected to bring their claims. … We don’t need additional government offices.”
Bowen said Associated Builders is worried that members who work throughout the state would need a full-time department to learn all 67 ordinances and processes.
Jeanette Smith, executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, a member organization of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, wrote The Florida Independent via email about a local wage theft rule passed in Miami-Dade County that would be threatened by Goodson’s bill. She wrote:
There seems to be some confusion about the purpose of the Miami-Dade ordinance. The ordinance does not establish a new regulation but simply sets up an accessible process to address local wage theft cases that do not fall under the jurisdiction of existing federal laws. It’s the most basic of agreements — people complete their work and should be paid for that work.
When asked if the laws cited by the Goodson bill protect local workers, Bowen said Associated Builders research, as well as conversations with Legal Aid and other attorneys, shows that current state and federal laws cover employees in Florida at any level.
Jose Rodriguez, staff attorney for Florida Legal Services, a member of the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force, recently wrote to the Independent via email:
[Goodson's bill] cites the federal and state minimum wages – both, even if properly enforced, leave large segments of the working population unprotected – and then cites a number of other federal wage and hour laws all of which are tangential at best since they only apply to either contractors doing business with the federal government or to industries employing farm labor.
Asked about a November 2010 Florida International University/Research Institute for Social and Economic Policy study that shows the construction industry ranks among the top three for reported wage theft claims, Bowen said she was not privy to any data.
“I can speak for ABC members: Any scrupulous employer will not participate in wage theft,” she says. “Those that do this are not members of associations, they are out there by themselves.”