That minimum wage initiative, driven by a coalition of labor, racial justice, economic justice and grassroots organizations (plus the coffers of personal injury lawyer John Morgan) garnered nearly 61% of the vote, just barely surpassing the 60% threshold that’s needed in Florida for constitutional amendments to pass. (It did get more votes in Florida than either presidential candidate Joe Biden or former president Donald Trump, however.)
Problem is, while the labor movement has celebrated this victory, Florida simultaneously remains a state with one of the highest minimum wage violation rates in the country, and few elected leaders — Democrat or Republican — ever really talk about it, let alone acknowledge that it’s a problem.
There was a state agency tasked with enforcing the state minimum wage, but it was dismantled two decades ago. That leaves Florida’s minimum wage workers today, many of whom labor in some of the state's most pivotal industries, with few options when their boss fails to pay them what they're owed.
Minimum wage earners can file a complaint with the federal government, which can recover wages — but only up to the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Or they can pursue a civil suit with a private lawyer, a potentially costly and time-consuming process. Or they can file a complaint with the State Attorney General's Office, which for years failed to take a single enforcement action against wage theft and doesn’t even openly publicize its ability to enforce Florida’s minimum wage.
Or, if you live in one of just a handful of municipalities in Florida that offers such a service, you can turn to a local wage recovery program.
One of those municipalities is Osceola County, just south of Orlando, which first established a program to combat wage theft, including unpaid wages and tips, in 2015.
Workers in Osceola County — not just those making minimum wage — can file a complaint with the county if they believe their employer failed to pay them at least $60 or more in wages they're legally entitled to.
Similar programs, established under local ordinances or resolutions, also exist in a half-dozen counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Alachua, Broward and Miami-Dade County, which established the state’s first wage theft program in 2010.
Neither Orange County nor the city of Orlando — both packed with Democrats in local office — have comparable wage recovery programs. But it’s not because there isn’t a need.
The Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor research and policy think tank, describes wage theft as a “widespread epidemic that costs workers, their families, and communities billions of dollars each year.”
Failing to pay workers at least minimum wage is just one example of wage theft, but in Florida, it's one of the most common, according to the independent Florida Policy Institute.
In 2021, the organization released a report calling on lawmakers to reassess enforcement of the state minimum wage, warning that it’s “been largely unenforced for at least a decade.”
As of 2019, the minimum wage violation rate among low-wage Floridians was 14.6 percent, the report found, nearly double what it was between 2000 and 2005. After Floridians voted in 2004 to increase the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15, the violation rate shot up even higher, reaching a peak of 26 percent in 2015.
Some of Florida’s top industries — agriculture, service work and real estate — suffer some of the highest levels of minimum wage violations. Women, people of color and immigrants, who are over-represented in low-wage jobs, are particularly vulnerable.
Taking it local: How it works
In the broad absence of an enforcement mechanism on a state level under Republican leadership, grassroots activism in local communities helped push elected leaders in places like Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Broward Counties to adopt local programs to combat this, according to Bruce Nissen, a retired labor studies professor and community activist who helped advocate for them.
“I think the problem a lot of times in Orlando was we didn't, at that time, have a similar level of grassroots activism fighting for it,” Nissen, who now resides in Pinellas County, told Orlando Weekly in an interview earlier this year
Osceola County’s wage recovery program, managed by the county attorney’s office, is one-of-a-kind in Central Florida.
How it works: The first step, if you believe you’ve been shorted wages and are eligible for the program, is to file a complaint.
You can’t file anonymously, and the work must have been performed within the past 12 months and within county limits. You don’t have to be a legal U.S. citizen to file, and you don’t need to have your own attorney.
The county will ask for evidence to substantiate your claim of wage theft — for instance, check stubs, W-2 forms (the program doesn’t cover independent contractors) or canceled checks.
If the allegation looks legit, they’ll move forward with serving a notice to your employer, who has 20 days to respond. If they do respond, the county will begin a conciliation process.
Sometimes, the employer will pay up before conciliation is necessary, county attorney Natasha Billyer confirmed, if they are spooked enough by the county’s served notice.
If the employer doesn't respond, however, the county will schedule an administrative hearing. This is also what will happen if the county hasn’t been able to resolve the problem through conciliation.
Administrative hearings are conducted only in English, but Billyer told Orlando Weekly they recently established a translator service, and a language barrier hasn’t been a deterrent to a worker’s participation to her knowledge in the past, she said.
Notably, immigrants and undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable when it comes to minimum wage violations, according to the Florida Policy Institute.
“One of the issues we have in Florida is the lack of support for working-class people,” says Sen. Victor Torres.
These groups of workers commonly labor in industries pivotal to Central Florida’s billion-dollar tourism economy, such as hospitality and service work, which can be hotbeds for exploitation, including wage theft.
If the hearing officer assigned to your case in Osceola County determines your employer did commit wage theft, the officer may order them to pay liquidated damages to the worker of up to three times the amount of wages claimed.
In addition, the officer may also order the employer to cover administrative costs associated with conducting the hearing.
But there’s a catch.
The county states explicitly that they can’t force an employer to pay, even if the hearing officer rules in the worker’s favor.
At that point, if the employer just refuses to pay, the worker would have to take private legal action to recover their stolen wages.
What Osceola County can do, Billyer confirmed, is move to suspend or revoke the local business tax receipt of an employer who fails to pay up.
But that’s not exactly a fine, and the penalty for doing business with a delinquent business tax receipt varies by county, but usually isn't enough to be a strong deterrent. There’s no guarantee that workers will get what they’re lawfully owed, or that their employer, empowered by Florida’s weak labor laws, won’t reoffend.
CBS News Miami in January reported a similar issue facing workers who utilized a wage recovery program in Miami-Dade, which has reported stronger wage recovery numbers. While the county can order employers to pay up, they also can’t force the issue.
But troubles with wage recovery aren’t a uniquely Florida problem. Even in states like New York, which has a state department of labor that's empowered to recover unpaid wages, workers can still struggle to get what they’re owed.
Locally, Osceola County’s program is a very small operation, lacking even a dedicated budget.
Although it’s existed for over eight years at this point, it’s woefully underutilized.
Records obtained by Orlando Weekly show that the county received anywhere from just five to 25 complaints of wage theft annually (and that's not exclusively minimum wage violations).
Annual and biennial reports submitted to the board of county commissioners since the program's launch in 2017 show the program ordered back pay and damages ranging from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars for workers each year, collectively.
In the first two years of the program, between March 2015 and March 2017, the county received 17 wage theft complaints. Six were deemed “deficient” — meaning there wasn’t sufficient proof or the claim didn’t meet eligibility criteria. Two were ultimately settled privately.
Six cases went to an administrative hearing, with back pay ordered by a hearing officer, while three were resolved through conciliation meetings with the county.
All in all, the county recovered nearly $40,000 in back pay and liquidated damages for nine workers over that initial two-year period. From March 2020 to March 2023, the county recovered about $41,500 for 19 workers, after seeing a dip in complaints filed over the second year of the pandemic.
From March 2020 to March 2021, the county received just five complaints. Two were withdrawn or dismissed. One was settled privately. The county recovered about $500 for a single worker after serving the employer a notice, and $300 for another through a court hearing.
The following year was more productive: They recovered $11,275 for five workers collectively.
From March 2022 to March 2023, that shot up to nearly $30,000 recovered for 12 workers.
A similar program in Pinellas County — a county with nearly double the population — has recovered $616,720 for 296 workers since Jan. 1, 2016, a wage theft coordinator there confirmed. Similar to Osceola, they also saw a big dip in complaints filed in 2021.
From 2013 to 2018, the program in Miami-Dade County — Florida’s most populous — handled 3,261 complaints, recovering over $3.65 million in unpaid wages and penalties, according to annual reports obtained by the National Employment Law Project.
Different program designs and models produce varying results. Palm Beach County, for example, gives money to the Legal Aid Society to handle cases of wage disputes. But that model, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported in 2015, was more costly to the county than Miami-Dade’s and recovered less money for workers.
Some communities in the U.S. have also adopted community enforcement programs—partnerships between governmental agencies (typically labor enforcement agencies) and community organizations.
Enforcement considerations for these programs, encouraged by worker advocates, include things like publicizing employers’ violations, barring government contracts with violators, and even criminal prosecution in egregious cases, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In Osceola County, part of the problem, too, might just be getting the word out.
“There’s no particular outreach that’s done on the county side,” confirmed Billyer, the county attorney. “The information is on our website.”
Going the federal route — and its limitations
Another way Florida workers can recover unpaid wages is to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Not specific to minimum wage violations, the department conducted more than 2,500 wage and hour investigations the 2022 fiscal year alone, leading to more than $20.5 million in back wages and damages for more than 12,000 workers, a department spokesperson confirmed.
Since 2002, when Florida’s department of labor was dismantled, the federal labor department has helped over 450,000 workers in Florida, owed hundreds of millions of dollars collectively.
In January of this year, for instance, Orlando Health Medical Group Urology was forced by the federal Labor Department to pay out $244,000 in back wages to 49 employees after failing to pay overtime premiums, allowing workers to work off the clock, and failing to keep accurate records of hours worked.
But, when it comes to minimum wage violations, the federal government is limited in what it can recover. According to the Florida Policy Institute, the feds can only recover up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, about $5 less than Florida’s state minimum wage of $12.
In theory, this is where state and local officials in places with higher minimum wages are supposed to step in, to fill that gap.
And there’s evidence to suggest a link between a weak enforcement system and a higher rate of minimum wage violations.
The Economic Policy Institute concluded in a 2017 report that “the strength of a state’s labor laws and its enforcement capacity do have a significant impact on the likelihood that employers will commit wage theft.”
Employers in Florida, where workers have weaker protections, “have little reason to think they will ever be caught.”
State remains largely silent
Florida’s state constitution states that “all working Floridians are entitled to be paid a minimum wage that is sufficient to provide a decent and healthy life for them and their families,” but you wouldn’t know it by the state’s toothless minimum wage enforcement.
For decades, Florida has lacked a state agency dedicated to actually enforcing Florida's minimum wage, and there’s been little action by state lawmakers to try and do anything about it.
Employers in Florida, where workers have weaker protections, “have little reason to think they will ever be caught.”
Florida used to have just such an agency: The Florida Department of Labor and Economic Security was empowered to handle complaints of wage theft, among other things.
But, at the behest of former Governor Jeb (“Please clap”) Bush, the Florida Legislature moved to dissolve the state labor department in 2002.
Many of its responsibilities, including the management of Florida’s unemployment system, were handed off to other public or not-for-profit agencies, with an explicit goal of consolidation and privatization.
But somehow, the enforcement of Florida’s wage and hour laws fell through the cracks.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, then the Florida Senate Democratic Leader, accused Republican leadership in 2000, as they got the ball rolling, of playing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with Florida’s lobbying corps” and “putting itself deeper and deeper in the pockets of Florida’s wealthy special interests” after a tumultuous legislative session involving tears and temper tantrums (my, how some things don’t change).
With the dissolution of the state labor department, Florida’s minimum wage enforcement mechanism was essentially abolished, with no replacement, opening the doors for rampant violations.
That is, until a few years later, when a constitutional amendment was passed by 71% of Florida voters in 2004 to raise Florida's state minimum wage.
This amendment included a provision that allowed the State Attorney General “or other official designated by the state Legislature” to bring a lawsuit if an employer fails to follow minimum wage requirements.
Under state statutes, the Attorney General is empowered to bring a civil action against employers accused of wage theft, and can impose a fine of $1,000 per violation, payable to the state.
But it’s not clear the Attorney General’s office, led by Republican Ashley Moody, takes this responsibility at all seriously.
Between 2011 and 2016, under former Republican AG Pam Bondi, the office failed to take a single enforcement action against minimum wage violations, according to records obtained by In These Times.
More recent records obtained by the Florida Policy Institute, reviewed by Orlando Weekly, also reveal a lack of enforcement action.
From 2016 to 2019, the office received just 29 complaints of minimum wage violations, records from the AG’s office showed. And there’s no evidence to suggest they recovered a single cent.
Orlando Weekly submitted a records request last month for wage and hour complaints submitted since 2019. On Sept. 29, a spokesperson for the AG's Office shared they've received 50 complaints since then, specifically pertaining to minimum wage violations, but did not provide any records. “I am trying to get you copies of these complaints and will be in touch,” they said over email, before suggesting we “check with the U.S. Department of Labor.”
Three days after this story was first published, the Attorney General's office fulfilled our records request, and a spokesperson clarified that the office had received a mere 53 complaints of alleged minimum wage violations since 2019 (in comparison, the city of Seattle, with a population of less than 750,000 at the time, received 143 complaints regarding minimum wage violations in 2019 alone).
The majority of complaints received by Florida's Attorney General's office were "insufficient for further action," the spokesperson shared.
Some were inquiries, not complaints, they said. Some complainants "misunderstood" minimum wage requirements, and some did not respond to their office's attempts to contact them. "We have successfully resolved six complaints by contacting the
employer (nominal additional wages were recovered) and six other complaints remain under active review," the spokesperson added.
Aramis Ayala, a Democrat who ran against Moody for State Attorney General in 2022, sort of campaigned on taking minimum wage enforcement seriously.
But Republicans were popular at the polls, sweeping a red tide over reddish-purplish Florida. Ayala lost her bid against Moody, winning just 39 percent of the vote.
Moody, meanwhile, who’s been in office since 2019, took in a pretty penny from corporate interests during her 2022 campaign.
Her political committee, Friends of Ashley Moody, reported tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the likes of Publix and various auto dealerships, as well as conservative groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, which ran a corporate-funded campaign lobbying Floridians to vote against the $15 minimum wage ballot initiative in 2020.
A near-invisible problem in the Legislature
Granted, it’s not just Florida’s AG. Florida lawmakers haven’t taken much notice of the problem either.
As lawmakers verbally brawl over “indoctrination,” abortion rights and the Chinese Communist Party, beefing up enforcement of Florida’s minimum wage hasn’t really been prioritized by anyone in the Legislature, Democrat or Republican, with few exceptions.
State Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat and self-described “union guy” from Orlando, and Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville have, unlike most of their colleagues, notably addressed the problem.
Both lawmakers have filed bills in recent years to reestablish a state labor department, not just to better combat wage theft, but other labor issues, too, like cracks in Florida’s unemployment system.
All attempts have been unsuccessful.
Rep. Nixon and Sen. Torres told Orlando Weekly in April that they believe getting this legislation through won’t happen without change at top and more Democrats in the state Legislature.
Currently, Republicans have a supermajority, holding 111 out of 160 seats in the Florida House and Senate, leaving Democrats with little voting power.
This has created problems for Democrats attempting to get anything of substance — from tenant protections to higher teacher pay — codified into law. The minority party is constantly trying to put out culture war fires stoked by a majority party that's been gaining a voter registration edge in the state.
“Time after time after time again, we [Democrats] file legislation that is reflective of what the people want, what the people need, what they've been asking us for,” Nixon told Orlando Weekly. “And time and time again, our bills aren’t heard.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), who co-sponsored Nixon’s bill in 2022, offered a similar assessment. “The Florida Legislature has been so captured by corporate America that there really is no clear path forward for pro-worker policies to pass,” Eskamani told Orlando Weekly over email.
“In my past five sessions I have witnessed the erosion of worker rights, from union-busting to preemption and a broken unemployment system [that] continue[s] to be left broken,” she added.
Sen. Torres, a former bus driver and union cop from New York, confirmed to Orlando Weekly Friday that he plans to refile his department of labor legislation for the 2024 session, which begins in January.
Rep. Nixon’s office did not return a request for comment, but an aide for Torres told us he believes Nixon plans to do the same in the Florida House.
When asked about his colleagues’ disinterest in taking up his legislation, Torres acknowledged he’s working in a difficult political landscape.
“One of the issues we have in Florida here is the lack of support for working-class people,” he shared candidly.
“Listen, some elected officials, they're super rich,” he admitted, speaking not just of Republican politicians but conceding this is true for some on the Democratic side, too.
Of those wealthy lawmakers who remain silent on this issue, he says, “They don't realize what the everyday citizen goes through.” Some have forgotten where they've come from, he added.
He does what he can to speak up about these issues to his colleagues. “I wish we could do more,” he added.
Waiting on politicians to gain an appetite for minimum wage enforcement is an imperfect solution. Especially when Republicans, and their supermajority presence, have already tried to undercut Florida’s minimum wage as it is, in part through attempts to carve out certain types of workers (for instance, those with felony convictions).
Nissen, the Pinellas County activist who’s authored reports on wage recovery ordinances in Florida, told Orlando Weekly that drumming up support through community organizing is “key.”
“Then you’ll see politicians responding in a thousand different ways,” he said.
On a local level, Nissen saw this play out in Miami-Dade and Broward, for instance, about a decade ago.
“We didn't have a similar level of kind of movement activism going on in Broward,” Nissen recalled, “and it almost got killed in Broward because of that.”
But he concedes there are differences in how the two major political parties have addressed the problem. “I mean, there's no mileage in it for the Republican Party, certainly,” he admitted.
Republicans, in his view, will “make overtures” toward working-class people through populist tactics, or by appealing to various kinds of prejudices, but centering everyday workers' concerns isn't necessary to their aim of maintaining control over the state.
“You'll get a little more posturing in that direction from the Democrats,” he added. “But I don't think enough of the party systematically stands up for workers.”
Florida House minority leader Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat from Tampa, told Orlando Weekly on a September press call, when questioned about this issue, that her caucus has worked to be "a champion" for the people, "and not just for the rich and the powerful."
"I can affirm to you that it has been a big part of our caucus in terms of our policy priorities to make sure that we are always looking out for our minimum wage workers," she added.
Have you experienced wage theft? Have you filed a wage theft complaint but it hasn't gone anywhere? Contact reporter McKenna Schueler to share your story: [email protected]
Updated 10/6/23 to add a response from the Attorney General's Office that Orlando Weekly received three days after publication, regarding complaints of minimum wage issues their office had received over the last four years.
Updated 10/4/23 to add a response from Rep. Fentrice Driskell, when questioned about minimum wage enforcement on a press call.
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