WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Facing a packed auditorium urging them to pass a wage-theft law, two county commissioners expressed hesitance toward doing so Monday night, weakening prospects for an ordinance the commission itself unanimously asked be written in October.
Another commissioner told the crowd she backed the measure, and a fourth said in an e-mail that he would, according to wage-theft activists.
The proposed law would create a system letting the county investigate employers who cheat workers out of pay. The commission asked for it unanimously in October after lobbying by People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, or PEACE, a grassroots coalition of churches.
But in February, the commission deferred the issue, pushing it to June.
Business groups had swelled up against the measure, resulting in a court challenge against a similar law in Miami-Dade and a bill in the state Senate that would ban local governments from regulating wage theft.
Wage theft is when employers promise to pay for work, then either disappear or refuse to pay. It is most common against low-paid workers and immigrants, activists say.
Monday was PEACE's yearly rally on social issues at Palm Beach Lakes High School. There, three commissioners - Shelley Vana, Paulette Burdick and Priscilla Taylor - faced a packed gymnasium and pointed questions about their support of the ordinance.
Assuming the Senate bill fails, Taylor promised to support the law, and PEACE said Commissioner Jess Santamaria had e-mailed that he was sick but had promised the same.
But Vana and Burdick declined to promise support for the measure, leading to terse exchanges with PEACE's questioners.
Vana said she wanted to give a different program, which routs wage-theft cases to the courts and sometimes to the state attorney's office for prosecution, a chance to work first.
"I want to see what works," Vana said.
"But the reality is, it's a status quo," PEACE board member Maxine Cheesman retorted, before walking away with the microphone.
All three commissioners promised to oppose the Tallahassee measure.
Organizers also criticized Commissioners Karen Marcus, Burt Aaronson and Steve Abrams for not attending the rally; they asked attendees to call their offices and express displeasure.
Currently, workers cheated on pay either must sue or in some cases can file claims with the federal government - processes that workers' advocates say are too long and costly for people working paycheck to paycheck.
A 2010 study by the Florida International University Center for Labor Research and Studies counted more than 1,000 reports of wage theft in Palm Beach County from 2006 to 2010. The report noted that the actual number was probably far larger.
At the rally, PEACE said it believed 2,000 people had attended, based on commitments from members of their churches.
"We need a wage-theft ordinance in Palm Beach County, and what possible reason could retailers have for not wanting one too?" Cheesman told the crowd.
Businesses are worried about additional regulation, said Samantha Hunter Padgett, deputy general council for Florida Retail Federation, which sued to block the Miami-Dade law.
"We certainly oppose the theft of wages," Padgett said. "We feel that the existing legal framework does sufficiently address that."
If Palm Beach County were to pass an ordinance similar to Miami-Dade's, the federation would take the issue to its members to decide whether to sue, she said.