From TBO Feb 1. 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s wage dispute office has been up and running for four months and is working as its supporters predicted it would.

The office has processed a handful of worker paycheck complaints — one of which was settled after an administrative hearing, and the others handled more quickly when employers agreed to make good on the wages they owed during the initial mediation.

Eve Epstein, the city’s new wage and hour compliance officer, said the process is playing out similarly to the model created in Miami-Dade to handle wage theft, particularly for those in low-paying jobs.

“Generally, employers are paying when they are ordered to pay,” she said last week, while noting the city is a small sample size.

St. Petersburg is the first Florida city to adopt a wage theft ordinance and set up an office to advocate on behalf of workers who have been denied fair compensation. In other places, county governments have assumed that role, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, each of which began programs Jan. 1.

Overall, at least six counties have passed some form of a wage theft ordinance since Miami-Dade’s in 2010. That ordinance followed a study by Florida International University that showed Miami-Dade had the state’s highest number of wage theft cases, followed by Hillsborough, Broward and Pinellas, based on federal Department of Labor statistics.

St. Petersburg’s ordinance, pushed by City Council member Darden Rice, passed in April and took effect in October.

Epstein, hired in June, said she is continuing to get the word out to workers and employers. Employers, for instance, could be liable for three times the wages owed to workers if a case were to proceed to court and they were to lose.

“We’re not trying to take them by surprise,” she said. “We’re just trying to fix wage theft, which is rampant in Pinellas.”

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Wage theft typically involves people who are forced to work “off the clock,” are not paid for overtime hours, or are not paid at all. Often they are day laborers or work in hotels, restaurants, health care facilities, or construction and lawn service businesses.

In St. Petersburg, complaints filed thus far have ranged from workers not being paid to how tips are divided for servers at restaurants. Once notified, Epstein said, employers have agreed to pay workers. One case went to mediation and was resolved. Another involved a restaurant that unfairly was dipping into the tips of a server. That case went the next step, to an administrative hearing, where the employer agreed to pay.

“They thought what they were doing was legal,” Epstein said.

The cases, on average, have taken about a month to resolve, “which is good considering the (employers) have 20 days to reply,” she said. Employers are taking the ordinance seriously, she said, and generally are more aware of it than most workers are.

The results are not surprising. In Miami-Dade the vast majority of cases are settled with a call to the employer or through the mediation process.

Officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough said they have yet to process claims since launching their initiatives Jan. 1.

About 15,000 wage theft reports were filed in Pinellas from 2012-14, amounting to about $7.5 million in lost wages, according to the FIU study. In Hillsborough, about 12,500 wage theft violations were cited during the same time, with 9,539 workers reimbursed a total of $5.71 million.

Pinellas County’s program is similar to the city’s and to the Miami-Dade model. Rice said the city and county are discussing ways to align their ordinances and to work together.

In St. Petersburg, Epstein is the initial contact person. She gathers the necessary proof of employment from the worker and contacts the employer if money is owed. If payment is not made, the process moves to mediation and then to an administrative hearing, if needed. If that fails, the city will help the worker file a claim in circuit court.

Paul Valenti, director of the Pinellas Office of Human Rights, said his office has received a few complaints, but most occurred before the county’s ordinance took effect on Jan. 1. The office is reviewing two recent claims.

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In Hillsborough, the Consumer Protection Services division will take complaints and refer them to the circuit court mediation and diversion program, division Director Eric Olsen said. The office also coordinates with Bay Area Legal Services to represent workers in cases that end up in court.

His office has heard “a handful” of complaints so far, and Olsen said the staff is preparing to do more publicity to let workers know the program is available, as Pinellas and St. Petersburg also are doing. Olsen is optimistic about its success.

“Once you got to a neutral process, oftentimes a solution can be found,” Olsen said. “We’re really excited about it.”

Valenti said Pinellas staff members will meet this week to discuss outreach programs. Epstein has begun working at the Childs Park YMCA in St. Petersburg on Wednesdays to reach more people. The city is advertising the program at recreation centers and libraries, holding community forums and even sent people to a recent job fair.

“We’re trying to get the word out to everyone,” Epstein said.

With tourism underway, she expects more complaints may be coming from the seasonal service industry workers. “There are lots of issues with tips,” she said.

Some agencies — including the federal wage and hour office and even the unemployment office — have referred workers to the city, she said. While the Department of Labor will handle claims that involve large businesses — those with at least $500,000 in annual revenue or at least 10 employees — it doesn’t preclude the city from pursuing cases, Epstein said.

The federal agency only can enforce the statutory minimum wage, but the city will pursue the actual wages an employee was promised, she said. The ordinance says the work must have been performed in the city or in Pinellas within the previous 12 months, the amount owed must exceed $60, and the worker must have been an employee of the business.

Epstein, a graduate of St. Petersburg High School, returned to the city from Washington, D.C., where she was an attorney for the Department of Labor and then a negotiator for a federal employees union. She said she is working as a mediator for the city and not as an attorney.

Among the issues she addressed in Washington were workers misclassified as independent contractors, and thus ineligible for the wage protection such as the city’s program provides, she said.

That issue recently has gained attention in the compensation dispute between rider services such as Uber and Lyft and their drivers.

Four Hillsborough Uber drivers are seeking to join others across the country in a class-action suit against the ride-hailing company, maintaining it unfairly classifies them as independent contractors rather than employees. Their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa contends the classification of drivers violates the Fair Labor Standards Act by denying the employees at least minimum hourly wage and for overtime after 40 hours a week.

It also denies the drivers workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, disability insurance and other benefits, according to the lawsuit.

Epstein said it is not up to the city to decide the independent contractor question, but that she would encourage anyone who thinks they have not been classified or compensated properly to file a claim — Uber drivers included