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After heated debate, bill to strip counties of wage-theft prevention power clears subcommittee

A bill that would stop county governments like Miami-Dade from enacting wage theft protection ordinances moved through the House Subcommittee on Consumer and Military Affairs, along party lines.

 The bill, sponsored by  Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville,  pits low-wage workers and unions  against big business interests,  and stirred up heated debate during the hearing. Miami-Dade County has a wage-theft protection system that supporters say helps disenfranchised workers recover unpaid wages from their employers. Opponents, which include small government lawmakers and the business lobby, say that Miami-Dade’s program operates as a “kangaroo court,” and could lead to 67 counties with a “patchwork” of 67 different laws for what should be a federal issue.

 “Today, you have the Dade County ordinance,  and Palm Beach is looking at an ordinance,” said John Rogers, of the Florida Retail Federation, which supports the bill. “To say that this would not a result in a patchwork is false.”

 Most lawmakers who spoke said that they were against wage theft and that there should be a law at the state level to address the problem. The bill, HB 609, did not speak to creating a state law.

 When Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, made a motion to table the issue so that lawmakers could amend the bill and add language creating a statewide law, representatives voted it down along party lines. Many of the lawmakers who said they were for a statewide law, voted against Randolph’s motion to get the ball rolling on doing that.

 After that vote, Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, was visibly unhappy. She stood up during a brief recess and told Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, “This is ridiculous! Have a conscience.”

 Just minutes prior, Van Zant said he would ask Goodson, the bill’s sponsor, to work toward including a statewide law including in future language. He then voted against Randolph’s motion, which would allow lawmakers to add statewide language to the bill and take it up at a later time.

 About a dozen people spoke in opposition of the bill, representing many of South Florida’s wage activist groups and Miami-Dade County. Representatives from the Florida Restaurants and Lodging Association, Associated Industries of Florida and other business groups spoke in support of the bill.

 Richard Templin, of the Florida AFL-CIO, said that wage theft is at least a $28 million dollar problem in the state, and likely much more. In Miami-Dade’s program, mediators have recovered more than $900,000 in unpaid wages.

Randolph pointed out that lawmakers last year passed a growth management bill that sent power back to the county level, and would create a “patchwork” of different development laws that varied from county to county.

Goodson said the bill was not about allowing wage theft to continue, but about making sure that the laws were uniform and fair across the state.

The bill has passed two subcommittees in the House.