The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Stop assault on fair-wage laws


OUR OPINION: South Florida legislative delegation must step up and protect working people

Will the state Legislature’s assault on people who work for a living never end? Once again, lawmakers from the north part of the state not only are trying to pick the pockets of working folks, they want to neutralize Miami-Dade County’s home-rule charter in the process. In addition, they want to prevent other counties or municipalities in the state from trying to do right by their constituents.

This time, lawmakers are going after not just one, but two ordinances in Miami-Dade that protect workers by guaranteeing that their employers pay them, and pay them fairly.

In 2010, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a wage-theft ordinance. (Broward County has one, too.) It addresses what was becoming an all-too-common problem: Employers who don’t pay their workers after the work has been done. It seems to happen often in the construction business and the agricultural industry, where workers have little time or clout — and even less money — to pursue compensation through the courts. Office workers and others have been burned, too.

A bill in the Legislature would require workers to file a claim through the courts and would limit damages to the amount they are owed. There is no provision for punitive damages. It also would prevent cities and counties from enacting their own such laws. Under Miami-Dade’s law, workers can file a claim through the county’s Wage Theft Unit. It contacts the recalcitrant employer to mediate a resolution. If a settlement can’t be reached, a hearing is scheduled. Since it was enacted, the wage-theft ordinance has recouped more than $600,000 for employees. The law is working, and it is working well.

Too well, apparently, for some lawmakers. They are attempting again to prevent counties from enacting similar wage measures. Last year, they failed, fortunately. This time, the bill carves out a special exemption for Miami-Dade that would allow the county to keep the law on the books, while other counties could not. This piles one unfairness on top of another. Why? Because too many big-money business interests want to do what they want, including not pay.

These interests don’t like Miami-Dade’s living-wage ordinance, either. House Bill 655 has the ordinance in its sights, threatening to take down laws that seek to help people who work hard for a living to also not have to live in poverty. Miami-Dade County and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach all have living-wage policies. These guarantee that the employees of companies that contract with those governments are paid a fair wage that helps them feed their families and keep the lights on.

The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour in Florida. In Miami-Dade the living wage is $13.82 an hour without benefits or $12.06 an hour with benefits. Do the math, see the difference this ordinance is making. Often, workers in low-paying positions — janitors, security guards, landscapers — benefit the most.

Legislators who are doing the bidding of the retail industry not only seem willing to ignore the issue of fairness that such laws address, but also the economic sense that they make. After all, pay workers, and pay them a living wage, and much of that money is plowed back into local communities. They buy clothes, cars, groceries. They pay taxes that keep police on the streets and emergency workers at the ready.

South Florida lawmakers know full well the good these laws do in high-cost, urban districts. They need to step up and make every effort to block these onerous bills.

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