Florida Headlines

Dental hygienist on trial in 1984 killing of a Navy recruit

SANFORD (AP) — A trial is underway for a 61-year-old man facing a first-degree murder charge in the death of a U.S. Navy recruit who was strangled and dumped in an overgrown field in central Florida 37 years ago.
Thomas Garner of Jacksonville has pleaded not guilty to killing Pamela Cahanes. He was arrested in March 2019 after investigators developed a DNA profile in the cold case, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
The body of Cahanes was found on Aug. 5, 1984, two days after she graduated from boot camp at the Orlando Naval Training Center, the newspaper reported. She was naked except for a pair of white underwear. When the case was reopened in the 1990s, testing found semen on the underwear.
Investigators developed a DNA profile of the suspect and by 2018, they had the technology to build a “family tree” from that profile, the newspaper reported.
That led them to Garner, according to records prepared for the trial in Sanford.
While doing surveillance on Garner in February 2019, investigator saw him tossing a bag of garbage at his Jacksonville apartment. From that bag, they collected a cigarette butt, a cotton swab and a used piece of dental floss. DNA from those items matched the semen found on Cahanes’ underwear, according to court records.
Prosecutors said Garner, a dental hygienist, had been stationed at the naval training center during the same time Cahanes was there.
Garner told investigators he didn’t remember Cahanes and would not have hung out with or dated a recruit like her.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he repeated when told his DNA was found on her body.
Last month, Garner also came up as a preliminary DNA match in a September 1982 murder in Honolulu. Kathy Hicks, a Delta Air Lines employee from Atlanta, went missing during a visit to Hawaii. Her body was found beaten and strangled near a ravine, records show.
Similar to the Cahanes case, investigators matched DNA found on Hicks’ underwear to Garner, who was stationed in Hawaii from April 1980 until October 1982.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

Florida Headlines

‘Anxious to see you:’ JFK letters to Swedish lover auctioned

Associated Press
BOSTON (AP) — Love letters that John F. Kennedy wrote to a Swedish paramour a few years after he married Jacqueline Bouvier are going up for auction.
“You are wonderful and I miss you,” Kennedy scribbled at the end of a February 1956 letter to aristocrat Gunilla von Post, whom he’d met on the French Riviera a few weeks before he wed Bouvier in 1953.
Kennedy was a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts at the time, and the handwritten letters were written on Senate letterhead. He signed one simply: “Jack.”
The letters, placed up for online bidding by Boston-based RR Auction through May 12, underscore the 35th president’s reputation as a womanizer long before he won the White House in 1960. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Von Post, who died in 2011 in Palm Beach, Florida, wrote a 1997 memoir, “Love, Jack,” about her relationship with Kennedy.
A 1955 letter began: “Dear Gunilla, I must say you looked well and happy in the photograph you sent me at the Regatta.” Kennedy then sketched out his plans to head to Europe after Congress recessed early in August of that year, writing: “I shall be in Sweden on the 12th. Where do I go. Send me your address at Bastaad where you shall be.”
In the 1956 letter, Kennedy expressed regret that von Post wouldn’t be traveling to the U.S. as he’d hoped.
“I must say I was sad to learn that, after all, you are not coming to the U.S.,” he wrote.
“If you don’t marry come over as I should like to see you. I had a wonderful time last summer with you. It is a bright memory of my life,” Kennedy wrote. “I am anxious to see you. Is it not strange after all these months? Perhaps at first it shall be a little difficult as we shall be strangers — but not strangers — and I am sure it will all work and I shall think that though it is a long way to Gunilla — it is worth it.”
“This is the only Kennedy letter that we have offered that displays open affection to another woman while he was married,” the auction house said in a statement.
In her memoir, von Post recounted Kennedy’s efforts to end his marriage to Bouvier and bring her to the U.S. In the end, the future president’s hopes of doing that were thwarted by his authoritarian father, Joseph P. Kennedy; JFK’s own political ambitions; and the future first lady’s 1955 miscarriage and 1956 pregnancy.
Von Post and Kennedy saw each other only one other time: a chance encounter at a gala at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1958, when the Swede was pregnant with her first child.
The letters being auctioned off originated from von Post’s estate, RR Auction said.

Florida Headlines

DeSantis signs legislation to help improve early childhood literacy and kindergarten readiness

By Danielle J. Brown

Florida’s early-education system will see significant changes in hopes of better preparing the state’s youngest learners, as Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two bills from the 2021 legislative session focused on improving pre-kindergarten accountability and early reading skills.
DeSantis promised significant benefits for Florida’s students.

“If you can make headway here, you will see a positive ripple effect continue through many, many years of these students being in our system,” he said during a press conference in Miami Tuesday.

DeSantis actually held two press conferences about the new legislation, one in Indian River County and the one in Miami-Dade. He was joined by the sponsors of the two bills — Rep. Erin Grall, a Republican who represents part of Indian River and St. Lucie counties, and Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade.

Both of these bills, and received sweeping bipartisan support.

The goal of HB 419, Grall’s bill, is to provide greater accountability for Florida’s pre-kindergarten programs and give parents as much information about how their child is progressing as possible. These programs are voluntary because compulsory education begins at age 6 in Florida.

“This policy is all about empowering parents and families and giving parents the information they need — at that critical time in a child’s life — to make the best decisions for their children,” Grall said.

Almost half of Florida’s kindergarteners are not ready for that level, state data show, and existing assessments of how a Pre-K student is progressing may not give parents enough time or information to determine whether that student should progress.

Under existing law, assessments to determine if a child is ready for kindergarten are taken during the first 30 days of kindergarten. This means that parents may not know that their child is not ready for kindergarten until a month after the student started the school year.

And, according to an legislative staff analysis, only 53 percent of kindergarten students were deemed ready for kindergarten based on the Fall 2019 assessments. Grall previously called this data point  a “failure” on the part of the Florida Legislature.

The new law would have students assessed for kindergarten readiness while they are still in Pre-K, so that struggling students can be identified quicker and can receive additional instruction if needed.

Rep. Aloupis argued that Grall’s bill will be “one of the most transformational pieces of policy … in the past few decades of education reform.”

Aloupis sponsored the other bill DeSantis signed into law Tuesday, HB 7011.

It creates a statewide monitoring program to keep track of how students progress in their academic career from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, so that schools can identify students who are not performing on grade level for reading and mathematics.

Aloupis’s bill also works to bolster reading and literacy skills among Florida’s students with initiatives to intervene with struggling readers. One of these initiatives gives high school students a volunteer opportunity to tutor struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade.

The Phoenix previously reported that thousands of Florida’s third graders cannot read proficiently, and that many lawmakers see improving third-grade reading levels as a priority., Florida Phoenix, is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on  and

Florida Headlines

It’s to protect the industry; it’s not to protect public health’: Health groups urge DeSantis to block vaping bill

By Issac Morgan

Florida Phoenix

Tackling the youth tobacco epidemic is a top priority for health groups hoping to prevent addiction and diseases associated with tobacco use among young people.

That issue was addressed, in part, when lawmakers in Florida voted during the recent legislative session to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco or nicotine products, including vaping devices, from 18 to 21. The move mirrors an action taken in December 2019 by the Trump administration.

However, the bill, SB 1080, would do little to curb the trend of young adults engaging in the use of e-cigarettes or other products containing nicotine, health advocates warn.

The measure, approved by large majorities in the Florida House and Senate, would authorize the Department of Business and Professional Regulation instead of local governments to regulate “the marketing, sale, or delivery of tobacco products” including vaping products such as electronic cigarettes. The measure next heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

The problem, to critics, is that the state preemption of local regulations represents a “continuous effort” by the tobacco industry to prevent loss of major profits and allows companies “to aggressively target the next generation of youth,” the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in a written statement.

“It’s to protect the industry; it’s not to protect public health,” Susan Alford, Florida senior government relations director at the network, said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“No local government would be able to regulate anything,” she said. “We’ve seen the tobacco or vaping industry use this preemption as an opportunity to set up very weak state regulations. It’s easier for them to pass one preemptive policy.”

As the network said in a written statement last week: “Years of continued inaction by the state to regulate tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, demands strong, local laws that truly protect our children from a lifetime of addiction. Florida kids deserve effective protections, not to be left even more vulnerable to the industry and its predatory practices. And our localities have the right, freedom and responsibility to protect them, especially when the state won’t.”

Additionally, following the police killings of George Floyd and other young African Americans across the nation, the health group is concerned that officers may disproportionately target Black and Brown communities for enforcement.

“With Black and Latin youth receiving more frequent citations than their white counterparts, such laws could allow for law enforcement to approach and harass children of color in under-resourced communities — simply because they have a tobacco product in their possession,” the group said.

Vaping products, such as vape pens, frequently attract young people. Called electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes, they produce a nicotine-laden aerosol, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

E-cigarettes are deemed less harmful than regular cigarettes, but the aerosol can contain harmful substances besides nicotine, including lead and carcinogens, according to the CDC.

The bill imposes civil penalties for children and teens who are under 21 and purchase or possess tobacco products. A violation requires an underage person to choose either 16 hours of community service or pay a $25 fine. Additionally, the teen must attend “a school-approved anti-tobacco and anti-nicotine program” if available.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit cancer network, along with other health advocacy groups, called on DeSantis on Monday to veto the legislation. The groups, including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation/Tobacco21, said in a joint statement Monday: “At such a pivotal moment for public health, too much is at stake if SB 1080 becomes law. Decades of progress in protecting Florida youth from deadly tobacco products will be reversed while thousands of young lives hang in balance.

“Florida kids are continuing to use tobacco at alarming rates, with one in four high schoolers reporting use of e-cigarettes. On behalf of all Florida families affected by deadly tobacco, we urge Gov. DeSantis to veto the bill and preserve the right of our communities to protect the health of their residents.”

According to the network, one in every four high school students in Florida uses e-cigarettes, which are proving “to be a gateway to cigarette consumption for youth who would never have picked one up otherwise.”

And “nearly 95 percent of current adult cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 21,” the group said.

“We’ve long supported raising the age to 21,” Alford said. “It is an effective way to keep them from having a lifetime of addiction. But we are not losing anything if we don’t have this bill.”

Laura Corbin, bureau chief of the state agency Tobacco Free Florida, pointed to statewide prevention programs as an effective solution tobacco use among teens including Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) and THE FACTS NOW, according to Corbin.

“According to the CDC, national, state, and local program activities have been shown to reduce and prevent youth tobacco use when implemented together — including raising the minimum age to 21 years old,” Corbin said in an email to the Phoenix.

“Tobacco-control counter-marketing programs are vital to combat the influential tactics from tobacco companies, especially with the rise of e-cigarettes.”

Florida Phoenix, , is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: Follow Florida Phoenix on, Facebook and Twitter, .

Florida Headlines

National bail fund to expand in the Deep South

Associated Press
A national effort helping to bail poor and low-income people out of jail formally announced on Tuesday its expansion into the Deep South.
” Bail Out the South” is the next phase of the Bail Project’s plans to secure freedom for thousands of people over the next few years, organizers told The Associated Press. Although larger criminal legal systems throughout the country have begun doing away with cash bail for certain low-level, nonviolent offenses, the South continues to have the highest jail incarceration rates and the starkest racial disparities among those imprisoned pretrial.
“When I think about our work around social justice and racial justice, you simply can’t talk about those issues without dealing with what’s happening in the South,” said project CEO Robin Steinberg.
The project expansion includes opening offices in Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama this year, which doubles its reach in the region through partnerships with local organizations. The bail fund will work in concert with advocacy campaigns to ultimately end the imposition of cash bail, Steinberg said.
“We, the bail fund, can’t put ourselves out of business fast enough,” Steinberg told the AP. “That is the ultimate goal here. But as we know, systems don’t go down without a hell of a fight.”
The national Bail Project, which helps low-income defendants get out of jail by bailing them out as their criminal cases progress through the courts, was founded three years ago, following a successful 10-year campaign led by Steinberg and the Bronx Defenders in New York City.
Data collected over that 10-year period show that 95% of people helped by the project returned to court for every appearance. It also showed that, when people could get out of jail, the majority were ultimately not convicted of a crime.
Since its launch in 2018, the Bail Project said it has paid $41 million to bail out more than 15,500 people in more than 24 cities. That prevented more than 100,000 days of incarceration, and reduced the collateral consequences such as loss of jobs, housing and child custody.
According to the Bail Project, when ranked by state, seven of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates in the U.S. are in the South. And Black Americans bear the brunt of incarceration in the region. Of all Black Americans in jail in the U.S., nearly half are in Southern jails, the Bail Project said. Many prisoners are also saddled with fines and court fees that can lead to reimprisonment if they go unpaid.
Letitia Sanabria still weeps when she thinks about the days last winter that she spent in a Louisiana jail because she couldn’t afford to post bond on $5,000 bail. It was only recently, said the adult group home supervisor, who is Black, that marks left on her wrist and hands from the tightness of the arresting officers’ handcuffs faded away.
But the trauma of the ordeal is still fresh.
“It caused chaos, and it was the worst experience ever,” said Sanabria, who was arrested in Baton Rouge in December for allegedly interfering in a custody dispute involving her grandchild. Before that day, the 54-year-old had never been jailed in her life.
A Louisiana branch of the Bail Project bailed her out after three days. She would have been out earlier, but there was an outstanding traffic ticket on her record.
Sanabria said she didn’t disclose to the child’s father where her grandchild was because she felt it was unsafe. So she was taken into custody, even though she explained to police that she was the only person on shift at the group home. It was so abrupt, Sanabria said, that she wasn’t allowed to finish passing out medication to group home residents before being led away.
The ordeal got worse at the East Baton Rouge Parish Jail, she said. Sanabria was denied the use of a toilet during jail intake, although she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, which she says require her to be near a restroom.
She had to relieve herself where she sat on the jail floor, she said. Sanabria also went without access to her own medications while in jail.
To top it all off, she said, one of the group homes that she works for put her on leave indefinitely while her case makes its way through the courts. She has been able to continue working for another group home but, four months since her arrest, Sanabria is struggling to stay afloat financially.
“We’ve got so many people going through the same situation that I went through,” Sanabria said. “It makes you really wonder what kind of world we have, what kind of society we have, as far as our governments.”
Collateral consequences of incarceration, often preventable and unnecessary, drive socioeconomic and racial disparities nationwide, advocates say. And according to recently published papers on criminal justice reform policies by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, both nonpartisan think tanks, pretrial release and sentencing policies continue to be root causes of mass incarceration in the U.S.
“Part of what’s happening with the cash bail reform movement is to say that the system needs to change, and overall, there seems to be some bipartisan support on that,” Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told the AP.
“When we talk about the South, it is often a stronghold for preventing the type of reforms that people nationally think are really important,” he said.
Support elsewhere for such reforms has been tempered with concerns that, amid rising crime rates in some jurisdictions, releasing more people pretrial will pose a broader threat to public safety and lead to a policy backlash.
However, Steinberg said, it’s a common misconception that cash bail is a matter of public safety.
“What it currently does is criminalize poverty,” she said. “It also feeds racial disparities because judges often assign higher bail to Black and brown people.”
“What the Bail Project does is remove money from the criminal justice equation,” she added. “We level the playing field, so the presumption of innocence actually means something and people can return to their families and get their day in court without pressure to plead guilty.”
Bailouts are not the long-term solution to the problem, especially in the South, she added.
“Beyond the elimination of cash bail, we need to create alternatives to pretrial incarceration that are grounded in public health approaches to safety and investments in historically underserved communities,” Steinberg said.
Morrison is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter:

Florida Headlines

Once GOP governor of Florida, Crist now runs as Democrat

Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG (AP) — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who served as Florida governor for a single term before running other offices, is seeking the state’s highest office once again — this time as a Democrat.
After releasing videos Tuesday confirming his candidacy, Christ held an outdoor rally that sought to contrast his record with that of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“I’m running so you will be in charge again,” Crist told the crowd at a campaign kickoff rally in St. Petersburg. “No, friends, it will not be easy, but nothing worth doing is.”
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, Agricuture Commissionr Nikki Fried and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham are frequently mentioned as potential Democratic candidates. There may well be others.
In Tallahassee, Fried told reporters her aim is clear on running for governor, but it’s not quite time to announce anything.
“As the only statewide elected Democrat it makes absolute sense for me to be running for governor. But today is not the day for me to be making this announcement,” Fried said.
Crist has some built-in advantages in terms of name recognition and a strong fund-raising network, said Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
“He certainly has a shot to win. I’m not sure he will,” Jewett said. “He has been around the block.”
Crist, 64, does have a political resume that’s hard to beat.
Crist served in the state Senate through the 1990s, then decided take on then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham — one of Florida’s most popular politicians. Crist lost.
After that, he served as state education commissioner, then as Florida attorney general. Next on the list was an unusual three-way race against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in 2010, in which Crist ran as independent. Rubio won re-election.
Then, after becoming a Democrat, Crist lost in 2014 to then-Gov. Rick Scott. Crist has now served three terms in the U.S. House.
In a recent interview, Crist said he has given this latest political foray a lot of thought.
“If you feel up to the task, and people are telling you it’s time, I want to do it,” Crist said.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination for governor will take on DeSantis, who polls show remains popular in Florida. But Crist noted how often Florida statewide races are often settled by mere hundreds or even fewer votes.
“I really am an optimist. There are wins and losses in life,” Crist said “I think people deserve someone who has a servant’s heart.”

Florida Headlines

‘DWI Dude’ attorney sentenced for scamming drug traffickers

SHERMAN, Texas (AP) — A Texas lawyer known as the “DWI Dude” has been sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison for falsely promising Colombian drug traffickers he’d get their charges reduced or dismissed in exchange for cash, prosecutors said.
Jamie Balagia, 65, was sentenced Monday to 188 months in federal prison. He was convicted after a two-week trial in 2019 of conspiracy to commit money laundering, obstruction of justice, violation of the Kingpin Act, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
According to federal prosecutors, Balagia conspired with a private investigator in Florida and an attorney in Colombia to scam Colombian drug traffickers into paying “attorney fees” for acting as intermediaries with government officials who they said would accept bribes to dismiss criminal charges or reduce prison sentences.
There were no bribes or government officials involved.
“The evidence in this case demonstrated that Balagia had been shaking down his clients for years by claiming that he was able to purchase favorable deals from prosecutors and judges alike,” Acting U.S. Attorney Nicholas Ganjei said.
Defense attorney Gaylon Riddels had asked for probation for his client, saying that Balagia was “homeless, destitute and broken,” the Dallas Morning News reported.
Balagia’s two co-defendants in the case previously pleaded guilty and are serving federal prison sentences.

Florida Headlines

Former circus elephants begin to arrive at Florida sanctuary

YULEE (AP) — Former circus elephants are starting to arrive at a new wildlife sanctuary in north Florida.
The White Oak Conservation Center announced Monday that a dozen female Asian elephants have already arrived at the Yulee refuge, located north of Jacksonville. Up to 20 more elephants are expected once more areas are completed at the planned 2,500-acre (1,010-hectare) space.
The pachyderms are coming from the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County. Most of the animals previously traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus until they were retired in 2016.
Nick Newby, who leads the team that cares for the elephants, has been getting to know the individual elephants and their habits for the past few years.
“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” Newby said in a statement. “I was so happy to see them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment. Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing.”
The elephants will eventually have access to nine interlinked areas that will include a variety of vegetation and habitat types, such as wetlands, meadows and woods, a news release said. The center also is constructing 11 waterholes and three barns with veterinary equipment.
Asian elephants are endangered in the wild, officials said. Fewer than 50,000 remain in the wild in less than 15% of their historic range.
White Oak is owned by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter. The center covers about 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares). It’s already home to several endangered and threatened species, including rhinos, okapi, bongos, zebras, condors, dama gazelles and cheetahs.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

Florida Headlines

How companies rip off poor employees — and get away with it

The Center for Public Integrity
Already battered by long shifts and high infection rates, essential workers struggling through the pandemic face another hazard of hard times: employers who steal their wages.
When a recession hits, U.S. companies are more likely to stiff their lowest-wage workers. These businesses often pay less than the minimum wage, make employees work off the clock, or refuse to pay overtime rates. In the most egregious cases, bosses don’t pay their employees at all.
Companies that hire child care workers, gas station clerks, restaurant servers and security guards are among the businesses most likely to get caught cheating their employees, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of minimum wage and overtime violations from the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2019 alone, the agency cited about 8,500 employers for taking about $287 million from workers.
Major U.S. corporations are some of the worst offenders. They include Halliburton, G4S Wackenhut and Circle-K stores, which agency records show have collectively taken more than $22 million from their employees since 2005.
Their victims toil on the lower rungs of the workforce. People like Danielle Wynne, a $10-an-hour convenience store clerk in Florida who said her boss ordered her to work off the clock, and Ruth Palacios, a janitor from Mexico who earned less than the minimum wage to disinfect a New York City hospital at the height of the pandemic.
Companies have little incentive to follow the law. The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which investigates federal wage-theft complaints, rarely penalizes repeat offenders, according to a review of data from the division. Public Integrity obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request covering October 2005 to September 2020.
The agency fined only about 1 in 4 repeat offenders during that period. And it ordered those companies to pay workers cash damages — penalty money in addition to back wages — in just 14% of those cases.
On top of that, the division often lets businesses avoid repaying their employees all the money they’re owed. In all, the agency has let more than 16,000 employers get away with not paying $20.3 million in back wages since 2005, according to Public Integrity’s analysis.
“Some companies are doing a cost-benefit analysis and realize it’s cheaper to violate the law, even if you get caught,” said Jenn Round, a labor standards enforcement fellow at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University.
The federal data provides a revealing — though incomplete — look at a practice that pushes America’s lowest-paid workers further into poverty. The data doesn’t include violations of state wage-theft laws or cases where employees sued. And it misses all the workers who don’t file complaints, either because they’re afraid to or are unaware of their rights.
But some economists say wage theft is so pervasive that it’s costing workers at least $15 billion a year — far more than the amount stolen in robberies.
Companies are more prone to cheating employees of color and immigrant workers, according to Daniel Galvin, a political science professor and policy researcher at Northwestern University. His research, based on data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, shows that immigrants and Latino workers were twice as likely to earn less than the minimum wage from 2009 to 2019 compared with white Americans. Black workers were nearly 50% more likely to get ripped off in comparison.
Through much of the Jim Crow era, the federal government ignored racial disparities in pay. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that Congress first tried to establish a national minimum wage and overtime pay for workers. To get Southern Democrats to vote for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Northern Democrats agreed to exclude agricultural laborers, nannies and housekeepers from the law’s protections. In the South, most of those workers were Black. Out west, a large number were Mexican American.
Congress amended the act during the 1960s and 1970s to cover most of these excluded workers, but their employers often flout the law anyway. Galvin reports in his forthcoming book, “Alt-Labor and the New Politics of Workers’ Rights,” that the lowest-paid workers lost roughly $1.67 per hour — about 21% of their income — to wage theft from 2009 to 2019.
Yuri Callejas, a 40-year-old single mother, cleaned hotel rooms at a Fairfield Inn & Suites franchise in Pelham, Alabama. Callejas complained to her boss that he was paying her only $9 an hour when she was hired at $10 an hour, according to a lawsuit filed in January 2020 in federal court. Though she said she was working more than 40 hours a week, she wasn’t getting paid overtime, either, according to the complaint.
Her boss refused to change her pay rate, the complaint said, so she quit. Her accounting of how much she was owed: $1,272.
With help from an attorney at Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Callejas sued the owner of the hotel, AUM Pelham LLC. The company denied that Callejas was hired at $10 an hour or that she worked overtime, but it agreed to a settlement. Company owner Rakesh Patel did not respond to requests for comment.
Callejas walked away with $2,500 in back wages and damages. But that didn’t wipe away the memories of her struggle.
“Every time I paid my bills,” she recalled, “I never had enough money.”
Isaac Guazo, an economic justice organizer for Adelante Alabama, said fewer workers have reported wage theft during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s happening less.
“It’s the opposite, actually,” he said. “Workers will tolerate a lot more abuse right now because it’s so hard to find another job and they need to pay rent.”
Ruth Palacios and Arturo Xelo, a married couple from Mexico, disinfected COVID-19 patient rooms at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. They worked seven days a week for months, Palacios said, but weren’t paid overtime. At the start of the pandemic, they earned the local minimum wage of $15 an hour, she said, but after a few months, their boss lowered their pay to $12.25, she said.
“The little guys have to speak up because people — the bosses — are taking advantage of their workers,” Palacios said in a video call from her home in Queens.
Palacios, Xelo and two of their former co-workers filed a federal lawsuit against the contractor that hired them, BMS Cat, in January. The company did not respond to requests for comment. In court records, it denied that it paid the cleaners less than the minimum wage or that it owed them overtime pay. The hospital did not respond to requests for comment, either.
Danielle Wynne rang up customers at a Circle-K gas station in Brevard County, Florida, during shifts that started at 4:30 a.m. and ended in the early afternoon. Before and after clocking in, Wynne said, her manager made her work for free, according to a lawsuit she filed in federal court in February 2020. She counted cash in the register, brewed coffee, cleaned the store, set out condiments and refilled the lottery machine — all while off the clock.
The unpaid work added up to about $1,250 in one year, according to the court filing. For someone earning $10 an hour, that’s about three weeks of pay.
Wynne said in court records that she didn’t complain at the time because she was scared of her “vindictive” boss.
Circle-K Stores denied the underpayment allegations in court filings, though it ended up settling the case for $2,500 in October. But data from the Labor Department shows that the company repeatedly takes wages from its employees, with few repercussions.
Federal investigators caught Circle-K stores underpaying employees 22 times since 2005, most recently in February 2020. The total: $54,069 taken from 120 employees. But the Labor Department only fined the company four times and ordered it to pay damages to employees in two cases. In six cases, the company didn’t pay all the money it owed employees, known as back wages. The agency closed those cases anyway without further action.
Circle-K Stores did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Public Integrity found that Labor Department investigators are just as lenient with other repeat offenders.
The oilfield services company Halliburton illegally withheld $18.7 million from 1,050 employees, Labor Department records show, but staff investigators never ordered the company to pay cash damages on top of the back wages. The department fined Halliburton in only three of eight cases it brought against the company.
Halliburton declined to comment on the cases. But in a 2015 statement to Inside Energy, a spokesperson for the company said it had misclassified employees as exempt from overtime pay.
“The company re-classified the identified positions, and throughout this process, Halliburton has worked earnestly and cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Labor to equitably resolve this situation,” wrote Susie McMichael, a public relations representative for Halliburton.
G4S Wackenhut and its subsidiaries, which provide security services to companies and courthouses, illegally denied nearly $3.3 million to 1,605 employees. Federal investigators never ordered the company to pay damages to employees and only issued a fine in nine of 47 cases, totaling less than $41,000. Though G4S Wackenhut later repaid employees in nearly all the cases, it didn’t pay full back wages on two occasions, and the Labor Department closed those cases anyway.
Sabrina Rios, a spokeswoman for the company, said most of the money owed involved G4S subsidiaries that were under independent management. She added that the claims do not reflect the company’s business practices and that some of the cases date back more than 22 years.
“The company worked with the DOL in order to investigate each case and made appropriate payments to the individuals totaling about $3.3 (million),” she wrote.
A Labor Department official said the agency orders companies to pay damages when appropriate, determined on a case-by-case basis. Fines are usually assessed when a company repeatedly, or willfully, breaks the law. The department tries to resolve cases administratively to avoid taking employers to court.
“The department exercises its prosecutorial discretion in determining whether to litigate specific cases, based upon careful consideration of our priorities, resources, and mission,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator for the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, wrote in a statement.
Nancy Leppink, former head of the Wage and Hour Division during the Obama administration, said the agency doesn’t have enough lawyers to take every employer to court when they don’t pay up. Although the division hired 300 new investigators during her tenure, it had only about 787 to enforce wage theft laws as of February.
That’s about one investigator per 182,000 employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, far below the one investigator per 10,000 workers recommended by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization.
Leppink, now commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, said she pushed investigators to demand cash damages for workers in every possible federal case. For example, if an employer took $1,000 from an employee, the agency could demand that amount in back wages and an extra $1,000 in damages.
“If all you do is collect wages, why would a company bother complying until (an investigator) walks through the door?” she said.
While the percentage of cases with damages jumped during Leppink’s tenure, it has never surpassed 15%, the data shows. The agency’s decision about whether to pursue damages sometimes is dictated by the strength of the evidence, the urgency in getting workers their back wages, and the level of noncompliance by the employer, Leppink said — and sometimes simply by a lack of staff resources.
Last year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration ordered federal investigators to stop seeking damages in most cases for workers. In April, the Biden administration reversed that decision, Looman said.
Lawyers who represent workers in wage theft cases say they often discourage clients from filing a complaint with the Labor Department because they rarely get paid damages or see quick results. The typical case took 108 days to investigate, according to the agency’s data.
At a 2015 hearing in Philadelphia, a law professor from Temple University told the City Council that employers stole wages from tens of thousands of Philadelphia workers every week. The professor, Jennifer Lee, was pointing to findings from a study by the university’s Sheller Center for Social Justice.
“This tells us that wage theft is no accident,” Lee told city lawmakers. “It’s not a few bad apple employers or a few new businesses that don’t understand the law, but rather a calculated approach by employers to maximize their profits on the backs of their workers.”
The hearing helped launch a local wage-theft law that allows workers to get their money back more quickly than they would by filing a complaint with the state or federal government.
The ordinance, which went into effect in 2016, sets a 110-day limit for city staff to investigate and close a wage theft case. It also gives workers three years to file a complaint with the city, compared with the two-year statute of limitations under federal law. And the penalties are steep. The city can revoke or deny local permits and licenses to companies that steal wages.
Legal experts and community groups point to strong local wage theft laws as an effective way to get around lax enforcement at the federal level and in some states. Chicago passed such a law in 2013. Minneapolis followed in 2019.
But other workers’ rights advocates want to see federal reforms, considering that the Labor Department protects the largest number of workers. They want Congress to boost funding to the Wage and Hour Division so it can double the number of investigators, hire more attorneys and take on additional wage theft cases. They also want lawmakers to extend the federal statute of limitations beyond two years.
Leppink, the Minnesota labor commissioner, said the federal government could revoke franchise licenses and federal contracts from companies with a history of wage theft.
At the very least, the Wage and Hour Division can order employers to pay damages in every possible case, said Jennifer Marion, a former policy adviser with the division.
“If you know you are likely to pay double than what you owed,” she said, “that changes everything.”
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom in Washington. Alexia Fern·ndez Campbell is a senior reporter at Public Integrity. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @AlexiaCampbell. Joe Yerardi is a data reporter at Public Integrity. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JoeYerardi.
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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press.

Florida Headlines

Police: Woman killed, 3-year-old hurt in drive-by shooting

MIAMI (AP) — A woman was killed and her 3-year-old daughter was injured in a drive-by shooting at an apartment complex near Miami, police said.
Someone in a dark gray sedan pulled up to Coral Bay Cove on Monday afternoon and started shooting at Leshonte Jones, 24, Miami-Dade police told news outlets. Jones died near the first floor staircase, they said.
Police did not provide the condition of the child, who was taken to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Investigators said she is expected to recover.
As they were investigating the shooting, police heard shots being fired nearby.
“It’s almost mind-blowing, because everybody here witnessed it as well,” Miami-Dade police spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta told WSVN. “There was a group of residents that were here who were also waiting for this scene to finish when we heard that shots rang out. And it was multiple shots that rang out, to the point where people started running in fear for their lives to try to get some cover.”
No one was injured in that shooting, and police detained three people, he said.
He said the two two shootings were not believed to be related.
The search continues for the person who shot Jones.