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Miami-Dade's wage-theft protection program survives Legislature, for now

A proposal that would have killed Miami-Dade County’s wage-theft protection program failed to pass a key committee in the Florida Legislature on Monday, after the bill sponsor and a Miami lawmaker butted heads and the clock ran out.

SB 862, which would ban counties and cities from enacting wage-theft prevention ordinances, stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the meeting ended before the measure faced a vote. 

Miami-Dade’s program offers employees a county-based claims process to recover wages from an employer who fails to pay them an agreed-upon amount. The program has recovered more than $400,000 in unpaid wages since it was created by ordinance in 2010, a study by Florida International University found.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, would ban counties from running wage protection programs and force employees to go through the expensive court process to claim unpaid wages. Negotiations between employee-rights activists and the business lobby apparently broke down earlier this month.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who chairs the committee, used a pen to scrawl out an amendment to the bill that would exempt Miami-Dade County from the ban.

At first, Simmons was reluctant to accept the amendment, stating, “I have a problem with it because it still permits Miami-Dade County to do that which I think is inappropriate — and that is to create a judicial system.” Critics of the county’s program have called it an unofficial court system.

Flores reiterated her support for the Miami-Dade exemption, and Simmons had a change of heart.

“I accept the amendment,” he said, less than a minute after expressing his opposition.

Despite Simmons’ compromise, the amended bill was unable to clear the committee when time ran out and Flores ended the meeting before lawmakers could take a vote. The meeting started late because flight delays made Flores tardy, and a lengthy debate over a bill to fast-track the state’s foreclosures left little time for the wage-theft bill to be heard.

While the bill’s failure in Monday’s committee meeting dealt it a major blow, Miami-Dade’s wage theft prevention program is not yet in the clear. There’s a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, and procedural moves could allow the bill to skip the normal committee process and advance straight to the floor for a full vote.

“Leadership can always do whatever leadership wants, they can always pull it to the floor,” said Jeannette Smith, director of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. “It sounds like at this point what Simmons is considering is withdrawing it from the Judiciary [Committee] so that it can be heard in its next committee.”

The House version, HB 609, has been set for a committee vote Wednesday, during an 8 a.m. Judiciary Committee meeting. If it clears that committee, its next stop is the House floor.