I attended what was supposed to be my first hearing under Miami-Dade County's ground-breaking wage theft ordinance. I say it was supposed to be my first hearing, because it didn't actually happen for me, nor did it happen for quite a few of the taxpayers who attended seeking justice from the County.Here's how the County says things are supposed to work:
If a settlement between you and the employer cannot be reached, SBD will attempt to serve the employer notice of the complaint via certified mail. This notice allows the employer to respond to the claim within 21 days of receipt. You also have the option of retaining the services of a court appointed process server to ensure delivery of notice, if certified mail sent by SBD is undeliverable.
In my case, the employer definitely got notice of the claim. So far so good. Here's what's supposed to be next:
Administrative Hearing ProcessIf the employer does not respond within the 21 days and SBD has confirmation of receipt of the notice, either through U.S. Postal Service or process server, we will schedule the case for the next available hearing date. (Upon request by either party, a one-time continuance of the case may be granted and scheduled for the next calendared administrative hearing.)
We had a hearing set before and the employer got a continuance, thus proving they got notice. More good news, but it caused a month delay.We finally got the new notice and we double-checked the day before to make sure the hearing was going on as planned. I'm wearing a cast boot due to a rip in a tendon, which we advised them of, and asked if the hearing was canceled or continued that we be notified before I had to hoof it to Dade, park in downtown Miami, and walk the long way through the county building. We got a written confirmation and no cancellation notice. We felt pretty good.Here's what should have happened:
At the time of the hearing, both the claimant and the employer will have the opportunity to present their cases. If the Hearing Officer determines that a wage violation has occurred, he or she may order the employer to pay liquidated damages to the claimant of up to three times (3x) the amount of wages claimed, as well as payment of administrative costs associated with conducting the hearing to the County payable to the Board of County Commissioners.Final Orders will be sent to all parties. A prevailing claimant may record a final order or seek post-judgment release through the Miami-Dade civil court system. At this stage, the County's (SBD) administrative responsibilities at this point have been fulfilled and the file will be closed.
None of the rest happened. Instead, we got to the hearing, waited over an hour, only to find out that the County sent the employer another certified letter, this time with the second hearing notice. The rules say nothing about needing a second certified receipt. Indeed, in the court system regular mail is considered perfectly good service for any notices once the original complaint is served. Better yet, the courts in Florida have gone mostly to email service, which is free.The result: employers have figured out that the ordinance is really easy to circumvent. All they have to do is refuse to sign the certified mail notice. Their former employee, whose wages they stole, has to take off work, show up, wait hours, pay $12 or more for parking, only to be told they have to start over. THE SOLUTION IS EASYThis was incredibly disappointing to me, because I've been such a fan of Miami-Dade's ordinance and have encouraged other counties to adopt similar programs. This is a problem that can be solved easily.1. Any service after the initial service of the complaint should be by first class mail or email. It's way more cost-effective, so this change alone will save taxpayers thousands of dollars in wasted postage.2. If, for any reason, the hearing is canceled or continued, participants should be told as soon as possible. If one party didn't get notice (such as the first class letter comes back returned or the email bounces) then let the other party know the day before. If the County doesn't know until the last minute, tell the parties who show up as soon as they arrive. The hard-working staff and hearing officer were clearly frustrated. They had been working from 9 a.m. until past 5 p.m. But at least 1/4 of the time I was there was spent calling people up who had waited over an hour only to be told the hearing wasn't going to happen. The hearings would go much faster (and the taxpayer/voters who show up wouldn't be as upset) if the bad news could be delivered as soon as they get there. The hearing officer wouldn't have to explain and apologize for 5 - 10 minutes for each person. Instead, the staff could tell people when they sign in and not waste valuable hearing time.3. Use the savings in certified mail to hire more staff. The people working for Miami-Dade County trying to get thieving companies to pay their employees' hard-earned wages are clearly trying, but they were frazzled. They need help. Hire someone to handle sending the notices, confirming with the parties, and notifying parties of any changes or cancellations.With these minor tweaks, the Miami-Dade County Wage Theft Program should be able to go more smoothly (and alienate fewer voters - is anyone on the Commission listening?)
See more employment law posts on Donna Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home.
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