Greed, 5; Jesus, 2: PB County Commission Punts on Wage Theft Law

Categories: Broward News
Mammon trounced Jesus yesterday in the battle over a wage theft ordinance in Palm Beach County, as county commissioners favored the pleadings of big business over those of a faith-based coalition of activists.

Everyone involved made a show of concern for those victimized by unscrupulous employers -- who rob Florida workers of an estimated $60-90 million annually

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But when push came to shove--and after county attorneys had spent two-and-a-half years on the matter--the business lobby convinced the commission it was just too much trouble and expense to create an administrative process (like Broward and Miami-Dade have done) to resolve working folks' claims they were robbed of their wages. Commissioners Paulette Burdick and Jess Santamaria were the sole official voices in favor of an ordinance.  

The 5-2 vote instead left the faith coalition with a fraction of a loaf, a grant of $100K to the county's Legal Aid Society, for use in a program that so far has shown limited success in bringing bosses to the table to cough up stolen dough. Attorneys for the bosses told the room, in effect, to take it or leave it.

SoFL Interfaith Worker Justice.jpg

With the commission chambers packed with more than 120 ordinance supporters, the day's most powerful oratory came from a rainbow trio of ministers -- black, white, and brown -- who rose to denounce the die being cast. 

(Video of the commission meeting here.)

The Rev. Gerald Kisner of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach condemned opposition to the proposed wage theft law as "unreasonable and unethical." He called the Legal Aid Society alternative "toothless."

The Rev. William Stokes, of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, accused the commission of a "bait and switch." He said commissioners were "following the script of the Business Forum," leaving an "unsavory impression of collusion." (It was the business community's idea to use the Legal Aid Society as an alternative to a wage theft ordinance.) 

The Rev. John D'Mello, of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Palm Beach Gardens, called the Legal Aid Society alternative a "whitewash," one that allows resistant employers to rope-a-dope claimants. 

(Later, by phone, Legal Aid executive director Bob Bertisch told New Times he was "surprised" and "disappointed" by the ministers' criticisms. He felt his group had done a good job--considering they'd worked without any county funding for the program.)

Speaking against an ordinance and for the Legal Aid alternative were attorneys Christine Hanley, with the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, and Skeet Jernigan, with the Economic Council of Palm Beach County

Hanley described the Legal Aid program as a "spectacular success" with "recoveries one-third and more over those of Miami." (Between Feb. 2011 and Nov. 2012 PB Legal Aid recovered $116K of stolen wages. Between Feb. 2010 and Sept. 2012 Miami-Dade recovered $526K and awarded, though not yet collected, another $737K.)  

Jernigan was less deceptive and more blunt. He said the business community was thankful to the activists for bringing the wage theft issue to public attention. Now, he said, the activists "need to embrace the solution"--the business community's solution.

The working class faithful are trying to make lemonade from this lemon. Almost immediately following the commission vote, Jeannette Smith, of South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, was seen huddling collegially with a Legal Aid Society staffer. 

At the same time, the activists--whose ranks include organized labor, immigrant's rights, and senior citizen's organizations--are none too happy with the commission's majority, especially Priscilla Taylor and Shelley Vana, whose support they had counted on. 

"They turned against their own constituents," one organizer told the wage theft law supporters as they gathered outside the county building to discuss the day's result. "There should be some righteous anger." 

Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact 


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