10/09/2012 10:13 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Broward Values Honesty, Not Theft

Today, Broward County Commissioners will vote on a wage recovery ordinance that could help thousands of workers who are not paid for their work. Florida is currently the 15th worst state in the country when it comes to helping workers recover their earned salaries, and Broward County alone has the third largest number of cases in our state.

The magnitude of the problem led commissioners in Miami-Dade County to pass a similar ordinance in 2010, with great results. This ordinance has helped over 600 workers who couldn't afford to pay their rent or buy food for their children when they didn't get their full paycheck, and who otherwise would have had to go to the courts to recover their wages. Needless to say, if they didn't have enough to pay for their family's basic needs, they were not in a position to get an attorney, pay filing fees, and wait months or years for their pay.

Last week, an opinion piece in the Sun Sentinel by Dan Lindblade of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce opposing the ordinance showed a remarkable degree of misunderstanding about the laws applicable to workers in Florida.

Unfortunately, Mr. Lindblade, Florida is one of only two states in the country without a state level Department of Labor to which a worker can turn for recourse when he or she is not paid. Also, if someone tries to recover wages beyond the minimum wage, he or she remains unprotected, because Florida's existing laws apply only to minimum wage and overtime cases. Finally, the majority of the statutes mentioned by Mr. Lindblade do not cover a large segment of workers. In other words, the majority of Florida's workers are left on their own when they don't get paid.
Recently, 47 employees who were not covered under any federal wage protection laws but who were covered under the Miami-Dade County ordinance, were able to recover $147,777 in unpaid salaries. That seems pretty significant to me. I doubt that most of us would feel that a price tag of less than $100,000 to establish a wage recovery program in Broward County is too much.
In a time when our economy and our communities are starting to emerge from a crisis, one has to ask why wouldn't local government want to protect workers and businesses from an unfair business model that hurts us all?  Why should an ethical business owner have to stand next to a pirate that underpays or doesn't pay his employees, someone who underbids him on jobs because he is planning to stiff his employees? Protecting workers is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good for business and for the community.
The Broward County Commission should be commended for taking a stand against the egregious practice of wage theft and sending a clear message to anyone who wants to do business in Broward County -- we're an honest community and we want honest companies.
Jeanette Smith, the executive director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, is a member of the Florida Wage Theft Task Force.