In March of 2014, a nail-salon worker in Florida filed a complaint against her boss with the office of the state’s Republican attorney general, Pam Bondi. The salon worker, who wished to remain anonymous in this article for fear of retaliation by her former employer, told me that she had started at the salon the previous November and that, in addition to a variety of workplace abuses, her boss refused to pay his employees the state’s minimum wage, which was then $7.93 an hour.
In her complaint to Bondi’s office, the worker described an alarming set of alleged offenses. “They make us work a minimum of 40 hrs a week and sometimes remove our rights for breaks, yet only pay straight commission,” said the worker’s complaint, which was submitted to Bondi’s office by e-mail. “There are weeks where some of us have had to work 45 hrs+ and only had a check for $10.00—$50.00. [T]hey threaten if we even ask about minimum wage.” The complaint added that “many of the girls are scared to say the wrong thing yet dont have enough money to feed their families.”
The salon employee, who, along with her husband, was working to raise an autistic child, hoped that Bondi’s office would help her get the money that she was owed for her months of salon work. But the worker heard nothing from Bondi’s office in response to the complaint, she said, even after multiple follow-ups. “I made two or three calls, and after a few months passed, I assumed they weren’t going to do anything,” the worker told me, “so I dropped it.”
To the salon worker—who estimated she was owed some $2,000 in back wages for several months of work—Florida’s top cop for labor violations appeared to be off duty.
In most states, the attorney general would not be the first place a desperate worker might turn, but in Florida, the office is both the first and last line of defense for exploited workers. After Jeb Bush dismantled Florida’s Department of Labor in the early 2000s—he justified it as a cost-saving measure—the Republicans in the state named the attorney general’s office as the main government agency responsible for enforcing the state’s minimum wage. But what the worker did not know is that Pam Bondi is a politician who has voiced fierce opposition to strong minimum-wage laws and has close ties to organizations that have aggressively lobbied against laws to protect workers from theft.
In recent months, Bondi has repeatedly made national headlines. In March, she became one of the highest-profile politicians to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Bondi’s endorsement tipped off allegations that she had, in 2013, declined to sue Trump University for fraudulent business practices after personally soliciting and securing a hefty political contribution from Trump himself. More recently, in the wake of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, Bondi has been on the defensive about her office’s anti-gay posture throughout her tenure as attorney general.
Yet, while Bondi has busied herself with courting Republican donors and waging a costly fight against marriage equality, she has apparently paid less attention to low-wage workers in the state seeking help from her office. In interviews, workers who went to her office seeking redress for having allegedly lost much-needed pay to their employers said Bondi’s office did little to nothing to help recover their wages. And Bondi’s own track record supports these claims. Despite federal data showing that employers in Florida cheat their workers out of millions of dollars a year, Bondi’s office—and by extension, the entire state of Florida—has not brought a single formal enforcement action against an employer in the state since in 2011.
According to the records obtained by The Nation, workers have filed more than three dozen complaints with Bondi’s office during the past two years. The grievances range from employees expressing concern that their bosses are getting away with skimming a few cents an hour off their minimum-wage paychecks—to workers flagging a variety of severe workplace abuses. “Please don’t let anyone else go through what i endured,” said one complaint, in which a worker alleged sexual harassment and highly unsanitary conditions in a restaurant kitchen; she also believed her co-workers were being underpaid. “It was awful.”
Despite such complaints, Bondi’s public comments have given the impression that wage theft in Florida is not a problem in need of robust solutions. In a statement provided to me in February for a separate article—Bondi’s office did not respond to more than a dozen requests for comment on this story—a spokesperson for the office seemed to suggest that wage theft is a minor issue, with the bulk of claims coming from workers being paid mere cents below the minimum wage. And most, the spokesperson suggested, can simply be fixed by giving employers reminders to comply with the law.
“The Attorney General’s Office enforces the state minimum wage law; however, our office has generally not needed to file formal enforcement actions in minimum wage law violation cases,” the Bondi spokesperson told me in an e-mail, “because we have had success in getting companies to voluntarily comply once they are alerted to differences between state and federal law provisions on the minimum wage.”
Many other states around the country routinely investigate employers suspected of wage violations, drawing a sharp contrast to Florida’s near-absence of enforcement. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, for instance, assumed office the same year as Bondi and has already pursued a number of high-profile wage-and-hour investigations that have yielded some $21 million dollars in back pay for workers in New York State, which has a smaller population than Florida and also has an active state Department of Labor that routinely pursues its own wage-and-hour claims. Most recently, Schneiderman’s office filed a lawsuit against Domino’s, which allegedly shortchanged its workforce by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bondi’s office, in comparison, has given her state a significantly divergent distinction. Today Florida is by far the largest state in the country that does not meaningfully enforce its minimum-wage laws.
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In the absence of state-level enforcement, some workers grappling with unpaid wages do have some recourse: They can seek help from the Florida offices of the US Department of Labor, which employs a handful of investigators in the state. However, the federal agency sometimes lacks jurisdiction over wage claims that fall under state law. And the investigators employed by the federal agency are said to be stretched thin—each covering some one million workers in the state, according to a 2010 report.
Under normal circumstances, a state department of labor helps ease and complement the workload of the federal agency, according to Millie Herrera, who worked as the US Department of Labor’s Southeast Regional Representative for 18 months during Bondi’s early tenure. But, of course, Florida lost that safety net years ago.
Herrera describes the conditions surrounding Florida’s minimum-wage laws as a “perfect storm” in which the shortage of resources at the federal agency has combined with Florida’s lack of interest in enforcing the state’s minimum wage to create an environment of lawlessness for employers in the state. A Wild West of labor law, Herrera says, allows companies that illegally underpay workers to undercut law-abiding employers, causing a systemic tilt toward wage theft.
“If they don’t get caught, which is the majority, they continue doing it, and they base their business model on a flawed system of paying the employees as little as possible and reaping the benefits of it,” says Herrera, who finished her stint at the DOL in mid-2013. “Our economy is based on these industries that are notorious for cheating workers out of their wages: service, tourism, farming, and construction.”
Herrera recalls that during her time at the US Department of Labor’s Miami office, a business owner in the Tampa area approached her to complain that he simply couldn’t keep up with the businesses that paid below minimum wage. “He couldn’t compete: The other guys were paying their employees off the books and they were paying them less,” Herrera said, adding that she later heard that the employer ultimately went out of business.
Herrera said that the absence of enforcement can be particularly hard on small businesses, of which Bondi has claimed to be a champion.
“In the year and a half that I was at the Department of Labor, I never saw any action from the attorney general,” Herrera said. “The attorney general is protecting large employers who are getting away with exploiting workers and not paying them what they’re due.”
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Bryan Martinez, who worked as a waiter in St. Petersburg, recently got a firsthand taste of Bondi’s soft approach to wage-and-hour enforcement. In early April of last year, Martinez began work at an upscale restaurant in the city’s downtown area, where he says he was paid just $4.91 an hour with no tips, significantly below the state and federal minimum wage, during his first seven days of training. Then, for weeks, Martinez’s boss heavily skimmed off of the tips earned by him and the other waiters, Martinez said. After a period of several weeks, Martinez estimates that he was owed approximately a thousand dollars in unpaid wages. “Once I found out that he was taking money out of my paycheck, I confronted him,” Martinez recalls, “and he told me that if I didn’t like it I could go get another job.”
So Martinez decided to turn to Florida’s top lawyer for help. “I thought that they were going get my money back,” Martinez told me. “I assumed that they were going to do everything that they could do to make it right.”
In mid-May of last year, Martinez filed his complaint with Bondi’s office. “Someone needs to investigate this guy and his books cause he is stealing from his employees and getting free labor,” Martinez’s complaint read. “Please help me get what I’m owed and every other employees what they’re owed. It’s unfair to myself and everyone their [sic]. I have all pay stubs for future reference if needed. Thank you and I’ll look forward to hearing from someone soon.”
Martinez says that an investigator from Bondi’s office did get in touch with him and that the two had a few phone conversations and exchanged approximately 20 e-mails. The investigator also appeared to have placed a call to his employer, which, he says, seems to have prompted his boss to offer him a “settlement check.” Yet the back wages that his boss was providing in the check disappointed Martinez, to say the least. The sum his boss offered, Martinez says, amounted to $10.54, a check he declined to deposit. “I thought it was pretty comical, to be honest,” Martinez said.
After he continued to inquire with the attorney general’s office, Martinez said the state agency lost interest in his case. “I tried to reach out a few times to ask him: Have you heard anything? Is there anything happening with this?’” Martinez recalls, “And there was no response at all. I have no idea what was going on with the state.”
In some cases, the sums that complaining workers have sought Bondi’s help in recovering might seem relatively small but were nonetheless consequential in a financial squeeze. In September of 2014, for instance, a worker mailed Bondi’s office a complaint alleging that a high-end show horse breeder outside Ocala had paid him below minimum wage for two weeks of maintenance work. The worker told me that, although he believed he was owed the relatively modest sum of roughly $250 for his last week of work for the breeder, he desperately needed the money. Having recently struggled to maintain work, he had been sleeping on couches of friends and family—a position of dependency he found hard to bear.
“I was giving them $200 dollars a month, something for the electricity, the water and the food that I was eating,” the worker, who preferred to be identified only by his middle name of Lee, told me. “I was depending on them to give me rides to and from the store and to and from work.”
Like the nail-salon worker, Lee said that, after calling to confirm the attorney general had received his complaint, he never heard another word from Bondi’s investigators. “They said they would get ahold of me” Lee said, “and I’m still waiting.”
Lee told me that, if he ever has to grapple with unpaid wages again, he will seek the help of a private attorney. “Now I refuse to go to the attorney general because of what they did,” Lee said. “Why do we have attorney general if they aren’t going to do anything?”
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Exasperating as Bryan Martinez’s experience was, he at least, knew he deserved some legal protection. Most workers don’t know, and the complaints received by Bondi’s office represent only the tiny sliver of Florida wage-theft victims who know they can try turning to the attorney general’s office, according to José Rodriguez, a Democratic statehouse representative, who worked for years as a trial attorney in Miami assisting Florida workers seeking to recover withheld wages. Rodriguez has been a vocal critic of Bondi’s stance toward wage theft, and asserts that the office has done nothing to make clear to workers what their rights are and to whom they can turn to for help.
“If you’re going to do enforcement you’ve got to do outreach, that’s essential,” Rodriguez told me. “And, as far as I know, they’ve done no outreach at all. The vast majority of workers often don’t understand their rights and have no idea that they can go to the attorney general with minimum wage complaints.”
With Rodriguez’s help, several counties and cities across Florida have responded to the state’s vacuum of minimum-wage enforcement by taking matters into their own hands. Since Bondi took office in 2011, some of the state’s largest counties, including Tampa’s Hillsborough County and Broward County, have enacted ordinances to make it easier for workers to press their bosses for unpaid wages. Some of these local governments have even hired investigative staff to help workers pursue such claims. According to Cynthia Hernandez, who studied wage theft in Florida for nearly a decade as a researcher at Florida International University and now heads up the AFL-CIO’s South Florida Labor Council, noncompliance in wage laws is so widespread among Florida’s employers that some of the local enforcement offices have in fact turned out to be revenue positive, thanks to funding from administrative fees paid by numerous bosses found to be at fault.
Yet, valued as they are by Florida’s labor advocates, the state’s wage-theft ordinances have been continuously imperiled by successive attacks by Republicans in the state’s legislature. Over the past six years, the state has seen at least three Republican-led efforts to enact a so-called “preemption” law that would ban Florida cities from enacting laws against wage theft, as well as invalidate those already existing around the state.
Hernandez says that the influential Florida Retail Federation (FRF), which happens to be a close ally of Bondi’s, have stood out as the state’s fiercest backers of the preemption efforts. “The Florida Retail Federation was by far more involved with this than any other organization,” Hernandez said. Bondi has received thousands of dollars in political contributions from the business organization, and has spoken at multiple FRF events, including at the group’s annual legislative luncheon in 2012—a year in which FRF had made it a top priority to pass preemption bills to block and overturn local efforts to stop wage theft.
So far, the preemption efforts have failed to pass, leaving the ordinances intact. Still, with no statewide labor department and an unsympathetic attorney general, workers like Bryan Martinez are often forced to fend for themselves.
Martinez said that, as a result of losing roughly a thousand dollars to his boss, he was forced to fall behind on his apartment rent. “I was broke all the time because of him,” Martinez told me.
“I mean, I’m a server, not a doctor,” Martinez said. “So losing money to me is never good, period.”