The COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary hold on hearings for wage theft cases in Pinellas County.
Starting in June, the county expects hearings to start up again for what has been a successful initiative to put money into the pockets of people who have earned their pay but not received it.
The hearings will resume as the city of St. Petersburg considers repealing its wage theft ordinance so that all wage theft cases will be administered under the Pinellas County ordinance.
Pinellas County has enforced the city ordinance for the last three years. Earlier this year, Pinellas County commissioners amended the county ordinance so it is nearly identical to the city measure.
After reviewing the changes in the county ordinance, the city council’s Public Safety & Infrastructure Committee voted Thursday to advance legislation repealing the city ordinance to the full St. Petersburg City Council.
“The vast majority of employers do the right thing and pay employees what they are owed,” said Council member and committee chair Darden Rice. “This is a way to help protect those businesses that compete fairly. It helps protect local businesses so that they don’t have to compete against the unscrupulous person across the street who cheats their employees. This is way to keep a few bad apples in line and to offer citizens an easy and non-bureaucratic way to get what they are owed.”
Wage theft occurs when people don’t get all the pay they are owed or don’t get paid at all. It also occurs when a paycheck bounces, when there’s a failure to pay overtime, or when employees are misclassified, Rice said.
Florida is particularly vulnerable, because the state dismantled its Office of Labor and Employment Security in 2000, Rice said.
In 2015, the year the St. Petersburg enacted its wage theft ordinance, Pinellas County was third in the state for wage theft. Between 2012 and 2014, county data showed 15,000 people in the area filed wage theft claims averaging $500 each and totaling $7.5 million.
Since the county approved its wage theft ordinance and launched an enforcement program in 2016, there’s been a steady increase in the number of cases filed as well as wages awarded at hearings, Paul Valenti, director of the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, told the council committee.
In nearly four-and-a-half years, the county has helped employees recover more than $425,000 in unpaid wages, Valenti said.
There are some prerequisites before a worker can file a claim:
• The amount in dispute has to be at least $60.
• The dispute has to involve wages earned in the last 12 months.
• The employees must have previously asked the employer for wages earned.
Once a claim is filed, the county initially offers mediation. Mediation is voluntary. If one or both parties won’t agree to mediation, the case is sent to a special magistrate for a hearing.
“Because of the COVID pandemic, we’ve put our hearings in abeyance. That’s why our current calendar year numbers are a little off. But we’ve scheduled hearings over the next three months to catch up,” Valenti said. “Over June, July and early August, we will have caught those months up and then be current with wage theft hearings and hopefully back on track with the year-over-year cumulative increase in cases filed and money recovered.”
Under the amended Pinellas County ordinance, employers are required to provide notice to employees of who their legal employer is, the promised rate of pay, when payday occurs and how pay is to be structured. They also have to provide notice of ways to complain about wage theft if an employee believes that has occurred.
Pinellas County has established a website with tools to help employers be complaint with the law. The county also provides outreach at public events and other gatherings, Valenti said.