Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida News

Florida Workers Fight Back Against Wage Theft

warehouse workerGAINESVILLE, FL - Across the state, Florida workers say they are being denied pay or being asked to work off the clock by their employers. Currently, state lawmakers are considering a "wage-theft" bill, but it would require that any cases be filed in court.

Melissa Elliott is one of an estimated 1800 victims of wage theft in Alachua County alone. Last year she worked for tips only, at the request of a downtown Gainesville restaurant. She estimates losing at least $8000 in income, in addition to the issues she had with filing her taxes properly and being eligible for the accurate amount of unemployment benefits when she was laid off.

"I knew I wasn't getting paid everything, but at least I was making something," Elliott said. "I eventually lost my job there because I was asking a lot of questions and I wanted to be paid, and I put my foot down and I got dismissed."

Earlier this month, Alachua County passed a wage-recovery ordinance which provides a mediation system for employees who feel they were denied pay by their employers. Late last week the Florida House passed its own version of a wage-theft bill (HB 1125) which would supersede any local laws. Groups such as the Florida AFL-CIO oppose that state measure because it requires cases to be filed in court. That forces workers to pay attorney fees and court costs, which the unions say would make the process cost-prohibitive and confusing.

Jeremiah Tattersall, the director of the Alachua County Wage Theft Task Force, calls wage theft a "silent epidemic" that's taking place across the state. He said recent legislation being pushed in Tallahassee is working against the power of local governments and their desire to protect their citizens.

"There does seem to be a trend that Tallahassee is where local governments go to die in 2013," he charged. "You have pre-emption of wage theft, pre-emption of living wage, pre-emption of sick leave."

Tattersall referred to House Bill 655, which would overrule any city or county laws about requiring a living wage or paid sick leave for its contractors.

Melissa Elliott now works as a saucier at another downtown Gainesville restaurant and said her current employer pays and treats her fairly.

"When I started my new job, the one I have now, I was almost hesitant to go above and beyond like I normally did, because I had spent the last year being horribly taken advantage of," she recalled.

Elliott said she now is thriving in her work environment and plans to attend culinary school to become a chef.

Miami-Dade was the first county in the nation to adopt a wage-theft law. Close to $1 million in lost wages has been recovered under their law by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Photo: California Labor Federation

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