All Politics Aren’t Local: Florida GOP Wants to Block Local Government from Enforcing Wage and Hour Laws

In a break from conservatives' typical interest in devolving power to local governments, Florida State Republicans are pushing a bill that would forbid local municipalities from enforcing wage and hour laws. This is because in November 2010, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and a number of other groups successfully advocated for the Miami-Dade County Wage Theft Ordinance, considered by many to be a model wage theft law for the rest of the country.

Since then, more than $1 million in stolen wages have been recovered for nearly 500 workers, and there is another $1.5 million in pending claims that workers are waiting to receive. However, they may never see that money, because last month Republicans in the Florida's legislature introduced a bill with the support of the Florida Retail Federation.

“Here in Miami Dade County, we have the only wage theft ordinance in the state. We had passed it because we don't have a State Department of Labor and wage theft is such a huge problem,” says Jeanette Smith of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. “Technically, we have a minimum wage law in Florida, but nobody to enforce it. Suing in the court for most workers isn’t a viable option so we need local governments to enforce the law.”

Wage theft enforcement is a big problem for most low-wage workers, and Florida's wage hour laws are some of the most poorly enforced in the nation. Nearly 17 percent of all American men and 18 percent of all American workers suffer wage and hour violations each year; 29 percent of all undocumented men and 47 percent of all undocumented women suffer wage and hour violations.

The problem spans regions and industries. Surveys from the Department of Labor show that 50 percent of restaurants in Pittsburgh, 74 percent of all daycare centers in Georgia, 50 percent of nursing homes in St. Louis, 38 percent of hotels in Reno and 42 percent of adult family homes in Seattle violate wage and hour violations.

Workers in three cities alone—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—lost a combined $56 million a week in unpaid wages. The State of New York lost $427 million in tax revenue as a result of wage theft.

Despite this widespread scandal, wage theft laws remain mostly unenforced. On the federal level, there are only 1,000 wage and hour investigators tasked with investigating nearly 7 million different workplaces. The chance of a workplace being investigated by a federal Department of Labor investigator in one year is .0001 percent. Furthermore, most states have small wage hour divisions, with less than 10 investigators, according to a study done by Policy Matters Ohio. Another study done by a Columbia Law School program showed that states have on average one wage and hour inspector for every 146,000 workers.

“Part of the reason why there has been this wave of efforts to pass anti-wage theft policies at the local level is that, one, there is a huge widespread problem of wage theft violations nationwide. Two, there is such minimal enforcement of these laws at both the state and federal level,” says Tsedye Gebresalassie, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “So people went to their local governments to get things passed. In the absence of federal resources, the municipal level is the first place that workers can go to recover wages.”

Gebressalassie believes the success of anti-wage theft measures in Miami-Dade County, has provoked the ire of Florida Republicans.

“It’s hypocritical of Republicans to say 'we don’t want to give localities the power to enforce laws.' It’s at odds with the conservative messages that local governments should be able to pass their own laws,” says Gebraessalaisse. “Depending on how successful some of these local wage theft ordinances are nationwide, I think it will determine whether we are going to see a counterattack against these measures like we are in Florida.”