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Workers In Florida and Illinois Fight Wage Theft, Walmart

Ilana Novick

In a surprise move for a right to work state On October 23, the Broward County Commission in Florida passed the Wage Recovery Ordinance, a victory for workers and workers rights advocates in Florida, and an encouraging sign for similar groups around the country including Michigan and Illinois. Opponents maintain that there are already sufficient laws in place to protect workers against losing owed pay, and that the new procedures are merely extra, unwelcome bureaucracy. Supporters believe this law makes it even easier, and helps avoid court appearances. 

The ordinance, which was passed 7-2 by the commission, allows workers who believe they are owed at least $60 for work completed within Broward County to apply for backwages as long as the employer isn't the state, federal government or an Indian tribe. The case will go to a county hearing officer for a decision and, if the employees are sucessful, they can get back wages, plus the possibility of damages up to the amount of the unpaid wages. The employer would also have to pay the county its administrative costs, and pay the employee's attorney fees, if there were any.

Palm Beach County workers and organizers attempted to pass a similar law, but were unsucessful due to intense opposition by the local business community. Workers in Miami-Dade County were more sucessful in passing a similar law in 2010. In that county, workers recovered $511,429.26 in unpaid wages through conciliation, according to Interfaith Worker Justice, which supported the ordinance in Broward County. 

The law is expected to cost Broward $175,000 a year in staffing, and was heavily lobbied against by business groups, but supporters maintain that the courts "are not the most friendly places" and that workers need a new level of protection beyond the existing laws. 

Anti-wage theft laws are picking up steam in states outside of Florida. Most prominently, temporary workers for Walmart in Chicago have filed a suit against Walmart and two staffing agencies that supply them with workers during the holiday season. Plaintiffs claim temporary workers were expected to appear early for work, stay late to complete work, work through lunches and breaks and participate in trainings without compensation, a violation of federal law. The suit, supported by the United Food and Commercial Works International union, names Twanda Burk at the primary plaintiff. The suit claims that both Walmart and the QPS and Labor Ready Agency did not keep accurate records of time worked, even failing to provide forms for workers to do so, a violation of labor laws. 

In addition to the lost wages, the suit asks for an injunction against Walmart and its temp agencies preventing them from future violations of state labor laws.