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VOL. 127 | NO. 245 | Monday, December 17, 2012

Wage Theft Ordinance Causes Concern

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners take what is expected to be their next-to-last vote Monday, Dec. 17, on a “wage theft” ordinance that will probably be amended as it faces organized resistance from the local restaurant and hospitality industries.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the sponsor, has been meeting with groups from both industries in recent weeks to craft a compromise that will meet their concerns about a local system for hearing wage theft complaints.

The last commission meeting of 2012 begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Vasco Smith County Administration Building, 160 N. Main St.

“This could be very, very bad for small business,” Greg Adkins, the president and CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association told commissioners last Wednesday in committee sessions. “It adds another layer of government bureaucracy.”

Adkins also argued there are federal and state laws that cover violations by employers who pay less than minimum wage, refuse to pay overtime and make unallowable deductions for fees from paychecks.

Add a county or city ordinance to the mix and Adkins said there would be “confusing enforcement issues” for businesses that work across county lines.

Mulroy proposed amendments that would make it clear an employee filing a complaint with the county would have the burden of proof and for a rash of complaints in the same workplace, the county could suspend its investigation and turn the matter over to federal labor investigators. He also removed any extra fines beyond those that could be imposed in General Sessions Court.

But the amendments failed in committee. Mulroy could propose them again Monday before the full commission, putting off a vote on final reading until January. Mulroy said federal labor officials told him they field about 20 complaints a week in Shelby County.

“The state of Tennessee doesn’t do a lot of this kind of enforcement,” Mulroy said about the question of redundancy.

Federal investigators, he added, only act in cases where a pattern and practice is involved that has an industry-wide impact.

“Don’t tell me that the state and federal agencies are adequate to the task,” he said. “We know from experience they are not.”

Commissioner Steve Basar commended Mulroy for working with the industry leaders but said he is against it.

“Is it significant when you look at the hundreds of thousands of people employed every day?” Basar asked. “No, it is not. We can’t legislate that people do the right thing.”

Commissioner Heidi Shafer abstained and said she wants to see more detail on Mulroy’s amendments.

“What I’m looking for is a way for this to have as few unintended consequences as possible,” she said. “I’m really anxious to see what the final language is going to look like.”

The Memphis City Council is considering a similar ordinance.

Commission Chairman Mike Ritz, meanwhile, has called two meetings of the commission before the afternoon session. One will be at 10:15 a.m. on prekindergarten and an expansion of those services. The other open session at 11 a.m. will be on tax increment financing. Ritz said he is concerned about plans for a large TIF zone the city is proposing to channel property tax revenue – city and county – within the zone to finance the city’s Heritage Trail redevelopment plan.

Ritz said at the Monday meeting, he wants a “big picture” view of the financing method that the administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has also expressed concerns about.

“There may be a way, frankly, for the county not to play,” Ritz said, specifically of Heritage Trail. “If the city wants to do it with their property taxes maybe they’ll do it. It may be a city project and not a county project.”

Ritz has also scheduled an executive session with the commission’s attorneys after the regular Monday afternoon meeting to talk about an agreement still being worked on between the U.S. Department of Justice and Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court. The agreement is to settle findings earlier this year by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division that the court is harsher disproportionately on black teenagers when it comes to punishment and transferring them for trial as adults. The federal officials also said the court repeatedly violated the due process rights of juveniles.

Part of the solution involves the Shelby County Public Defender’s office providing legal counsel to juveniles independent of the court. That will take more funding from county government and Luttrell has recently met with state officials in Nashville seeking state funding for the effort.

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