ST. PETERSBURG — Workers in the city who have been cheated out their wages or underpaid will have another ally in the fight to get their money.
The City Council unanimously passed a wage theft ordinance Thursday that will establish a city office to help workers go after employers who fail to pay them what they are owed.
St. Petersburg is the first Tampa Bay area government, and the first city government, in the state to pass a wage theft law. Four other counties have passed ordinances since 2010, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are working on ordinances.
The city’s ordinance calls for establishing an office and devoting a staff member to accept and to investigate wage complaints. The program must be set up within four months, and city officials estimate it will cost $75,000 to $100,000 a year.
If it is determined a worker is owed money, the office will contact the employer to seek payment.
City Councilwoman Darden Rice, who proposed the ordinance, which also is backed by Mayor Rick Kriseman, said most cases are settled in the conciliation stage. But if an employer fails to pay or to respond within 21 days, a subpoena may be issued and the complaint will be referred to a city hearing officer.
Should the employer lose the case, it would be liable to pay the back wages, plus two times that amount in penalties, along with administrative fees to the city, according to the ordinance. Employees who are owed at least $60 would have one year to file a complaint and must be able to prove their work hours.
The city’s ordinance is modeled after one in Miami-Dade, which has helped to recover $3.8 million in wages for employees. That ordinance, passed in 2010, was the first in the state and has been upheld in court challenges.
St. Petersburg’s ordinance also includes a community enforcement element which allows local non-profit social service, religious or community organizations that often serve lower-wage earners to feed complaints to the city and to make people aware of wage laws and how to file complaints.
In a 2012 study by Florida International University in Miami, Pinellas ranked fourth among counties with the highest incidents of wage theft, behind Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Broward. Rice said 15,000 wage theft reports were filed in Pinellas from 2012-14, amounting to about $7.5 million in lost wages.
Wage theft includes instances where people are forced to work “off the clock,” are not paid for overtime work, or are not paid at all. Low-wage workers are especially hard hit. Typically, they are day laborers and service industry workers in hotels, restaurants and health care facilities, and construction and lawn service workers.
Rice said those workers often are afraid to confront their bosses, don’t know where else to go, or can’t afford to pursue legal action.