November 14, 2016 – The Wage Dispute Project’s mission is to work to settle wage disputes between employees and employers in Palm Beach County. The Project works with the Department of Labor to address egregious cases of wage theft and with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office to address cases involving intimidation and threats against workers making claims. After efforts were made by a local grassroots organization (PEACE), to get the County Commission to approve a wage theft law intended to help low-income workers receive money owed by employers, the Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners passed a Wage Theft Resolution (R-2-13-1857), in December 2012. This Resolution allocates money to Legal Aid to take on cases of wage theft and created a special Wage Theft Docket within the court system in order to increase the fair, effective and efficient resolution of these disputes.
“Wage theft” refers to the nonpayment or under-payment of wages. Wages can be stolen in a number of ways: employees are not paid minimum wage or overtime, employees do not receive a final paycheck, employees are not paid for time worked, employers misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime, and employers make impermissible deductions from an employee’s paycheck.
Wage disputes usually occur in employment relationships where employees are paid an hourly, daily or weekly salary or paid by project. Disputes are prevalent in many of the low-wage services industries that make up the backbone of the South Florida economy. When employers get away with wage theft, it creates an unfair advantage over honest competitors and negatively impacts working standards for all employees in the community.
Our Wage Dispute Project team includes Attorney Vanessa Coe, Paralegal Miriam Erian and Intake Specialist Ana Casey. They assist clients owed anywhere from $60-$5,000 from their employer. For those clients that are owed more, we refer them to pro bono attorneys so they can get the representation they need. The Wage Dispute team represents between 144-155 clients per year. They are on track to collect $150,000 in settlements for their clients this year, which will be the most successful year to date for the Project.
The team wants the community to know the Project is in existence and that they serve all of Palm Beach County. As Vanessa states, “many of our clients are undocumented citizens; we give a voice to those who have been treated unfairly and to those who are often working in fear. We hear them and listen to them and affirm for them that what they have been experiencing at work is wrong.” Miriam agrees and states, “All of our clients get to feel that someone cares and that there is justice for them. Not only do we do what we can to get them the pay they are owed, but we empower them as well. They can go onto other jobs knowing what is within their rights and what should be expected from future employers.”
Like many of the other Projects at Legal Aid, they are looking for more pro bono attorneys to help meet the growing needs of the community. Vanessa is available to speak to groups about wage related employment issues. If you would like to invite Vanessa to speak to your group, please contact the Wage Dispute Project by calling (561) 655-8944 Ext. 358.