January 12, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.

Low-income workers struggling to collect overdue pay could get more help this year from Palm Beach County.

A coalition of religious congregations several years ago persuaded Palm Beach County officials to start paying more attention to “wage theft,” which leaves workers who can least afford it without the pay they rely on for rent, food and other basic needs.

In response, the county has partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County on a wage-recovery program aimed at helping people collect disputed pay.

County commissioners Tuesday will be asked to renew its deal with the Legal Aid Society and pay $125,000 for another year of the wage-recovery program.

That’s about $21,000 more than last year, which the Legal Aid Society says will be used to bring in more legal help to try to speed up reimbursements.

“Most of the cases get settled through negotiation, [but] this will allow a little more of litigation,” said Robert Bertisch, Legal Aide Society executive director.

Landscaping workers, janitors, waiters, telemarketers and others working in service industries are among those served by the wage-recovery program, which helps people who can’t afford to hire an attorney to fight for overdue or disputed pay.

During 2014, the Legal Aid Society recovered $102,935 for 85 people through the program, Bertisch said. That translated to recovering money for about 61 percent of the cases closed cases in 2014, according to the Legal Aid Society.

The Legal Aid Society has one attorney working full-time on wage-recovery efforts, with help from volunteer attorneys. The $21,000 increase would pay for additional part-time legal work, Bertisch said.

The Legal Aid Society estimates that bringing in more legal help could reduce processing time from 80 days to 60 days, in the hopes of getting workers reimbursed faster.

The county’s arrangement with the Legal Aid Society was a compromise step taken after the County Commission rejected a nearly three-year push by religious advocates to enact a local wage-theft law and collection program.

The group of 28 local religious congregations — called People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, or PEACE — advocated creating an alternative to the slow-moving court system that would have used county employees to help recover overdue pay.

Business groups opposed creating a local wage-theft law, arguing that it would create too much regulation for local employers.

By teaming with the Legal Aid Society, the county offers free legal help that uses existing state and federal law to help recover overdue pay.

The arrangement with the Legal Aid Society is the “most appropriate way” for the county to handle wage recovery, according to Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Vice President Carol Bowen.

“We were never opposed to people who are victims of wage theft being able to secure the services they need in order to be paid that which they are owed,” Bowen wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the county.