New Wage Theft Rules Approved to Help Workers

Employers in Miami-Dade who don’t pay their employees for the hours they’ve worked will now face stiffer penalties.

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to amend the county's wage theft ordinance. The amendment increases the penalties to employers who refuse to pay even after being ordered to. Those employers would also have to pay the employees' attorney fees if the worker has to go to court to collect.

Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz sponsored the amendment in response to the NBC 6 Investigators' stories about employees who still couldn't collect money.

The aim is to help people like chef Alexander Hernandez. His former employer has refused to pay him what he’s owed. He filed a complaint and won his case before a hearing officer. But his former employer still didn't pay.

“I couldn’t pay my rent," Hernandez said. "I had to borrow money from my father-in-law and it was a lot for me and my family." 

When we confronted the business owner last February, she said she would pay Alexander and at least three other co-workers who won their wage theft cases. The original restaurant where Alexander worked closed, but the owners were able to open a new one.

“I don’t know how the state allows them to do that when they close one restaurant and they open another one with the same corporation," Hernandez said. "They close the restaurant and they didn’t pay the staff.” 

“We have to work with our legislators to try to find a way where these people cannot just open other companies when they have something like this on their record,” said Miami-Dade commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz who sponsored the new county rules. 

The county's Office of Consumer Protection gets hundreds of complaints of wage theft every year. But with no way to force employers to pay, the only alternative for workers is to take their former business to court. Forcing an employer to pay attorney fees would make it an easier option for an employee to pursue.

“By having the attorney’s fees they’ve got someone who understands the system, who understands collections and can go about getting what they’ve been awarded,” said Holly Beth Billington a county consumer advocate.

As for Hernandez, even though he hasn’t been paid, he’s glad his story is bringing a change.

“It makes me feel good because we doing something right,” said Hernandez.

While Diaz wants to work with state lawmakers to further strengthen wage theft rules, he may have an uphill climb. The Florida legislature is considering two bills that would strip counties of the ability to make certain regulations impacting businesses including wage theft rules.

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