Stop the Wage Theft

February 17, 2010
Miami Herald Editorial

The hotel bellman worked without breaks for a 16-hour shift when he was asked, but didn't get the contracted gratuity in his paycheck. A landscape subcontractor promised Guatemalan workers $100 a day for a week's work but disappeared on pay day. People in low-paying jobs -- U.S.-born and migrants alike -- are overly susceptible to unscrupulous employers who exploit them, as the South Florida Wage Theft Task Force has found.

Activists call this "wage theft," and they have enlisted Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas to their cause. The result is a county ordinance, cosponsored by Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Jose "Pepe" Diaz, prohibiting wage theft. The County Commission will consider the ordinance on Thursday. Commissioners should adopt it.

Recovering back wages owed workers will put more money in the local economy, send a message to crooked employers and create a more level playing field for honest employers. People in low-paying jobs -- U.S.-born and migrants alike -- in South Florida are susceptible to unscrupulous employers who exploit them.

As it is, exploited workers have few effective solutions. Frequently reluctant to seek authorities' help, some hindered by language barriers, they feel helpless. The U.S. Department of Labor offers some recourse but, until recently, the federal agency was understaffed to deal with workers' complaints.

As a result -- largely through the efforts of immigrant and workers groups as well as religious and social justice organizations -- state and local governments with immigrant populations are picking up the slack. Ms. Seijas' ordinance would fill a vacuum -- the county has no specific rules mandating procedures to prevent wage theft -- and set a state precedent.

Costs of the process aren't overwhelming, but should be acknowledged. The Department of Labor says employees from small to medium-sized companies are most affected by wage theft. A local law would create "considerable interest," says the department. Currently the federal agency receives about 50 complaints daily. Most violations can be easily determined and administrative action taken without more investigation. One in three of these cases would fall under the county's jurisdiction.

The county's Department of Small Business Development would initially get about 16 complaints per day, says a county analysis. To process the complaints the county would need to hire one employee, but it could transfer that worker from one its many other departments without affecting the bottom line. The cost for a hearing examiner is about $3,500 per hearing. There would be a one-time cost of $2,800 to modify a database.

Hearing costs could be recovered by fining violators. In operating a similar program, San Francisco actually made a profit. The proposed law requires strong documentation from complainants, discouraging frivolous charges.

Vigorously applying the anti-wage theft law would be a future deterrent. Employers would have to pay employment and workers' compensation taxes they're now avoiding, a burden for honest employers. Putting rightfully owed money in the hands of local families means they'll buy more goods and services in the community.

The county would be standing up for its least empowered workers. It would be doing the right thing for the right reasons.