Florida Republican co-sponsor of child labor bill owns company with history of wage theft – Orlando Weekly

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Florida Republican co-sponsor of child labor bill owns company with history of wage theft

photo courtesy of Keith Perry/Facebook

A Florida lawmaker who is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work on residential construction projects is himself the owner of a roofing company that’s been found guilty in the past of breaking federal wage and hour laws.

Perry Roofing Contractors, a Gainesville-based company founded and led by Florida Sen. Keith Perry, has been sued at least six times for wage theft, the Gainesville Sun reported in 2019, and was later cited by the federal government. According to court records dating back to 2006, former employees who sued had claimed to be paid for piecework, the Sun reported, and said they weren’t paid for overtime they were lawfully entitled to under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that governs federal wage, hour, and child labor standards.

Two years later, in 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor separately found Perry Roofing Contractors, led by CEO Keith Perry, guilty of violating overtime and record-keeping requirements under federal law. It’s unclear if this investigation involved employees who had already sued, but federal enforcement data reviewed by Orlando Weekly shows the investigation began in 2019.

Federal officials concluded from that investigation that Perry Roofing illegally withheld earnings for employees who were recruited from a drug addiction recovery program through a  Gainesville work release center. Perry Roofing failed to include “production-related and profit-sharing bonuses” in a calculation of overtime rates, and “allowed workers to draw from the overtime bank as needed in the form of gift cards or other advances” for hours worked over 40 per week, according to a 2021 news release.

Perry’s company agreed to pay $31,673 in back pay to 30 workers, following the conclusion of the federal investigation. Federal investigators did not find Perry’s company in violation of federal child labor law, which forbids minors under 18 from working “on or about any roof” with limited exceptions.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division, construction is one of the most common industries in which violations of federal minimum wage, overtime, and child labor standards occur.

That’s one of the criticisms that’s been levied by opponents against new Florida legislation (SB 460) co-sponsored by Perry, which would would loosen hazardous work restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds in residential building construction, an industry that’s currently deemed too dangerous under law for minors unless they’re just doing clerical work.

The bill, as originally filed, would have also allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to work on roofs, superstructures and scaffolding, with no restrictions on how far off the ground they could be put to work.

A lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association previously told Orlando Weekly in a statement that the bill would help “remove barriers to economic self-sufficiency” for youth and help them identify “tangible career goals,” particularly for kids in parts of the state that have limited access to student learner programs in the trades through the public school system.

Primary bill sponsor Sen. Corey Simon, however, amended the legislation on Wednesday following public pressure to clarify that older teens would only be allowed to work on residential, not commercial, construction sites. They would not be allowed to work on roofs, scaffolding, ladders or superstructures more than six feet above the ground.

This change was seemingly made to remain in compliance with federal law, which prohibits minors under 18 from working “on or about roofs,” with limited exceptions for federally approved student learner and apprenticeship programs. Perry co-sponsored the legislation before these changes were approved.

When reached for comment on the legislation Wednesday afternoon, Perry — who defended the bill during its first committee hearing earlier that day — told Orlando Weekly over the phone that he didn’t see a connection between his private roofing business and his support for Senate Bill 460, which was officially filed by Simon, a first-term Republican senator elected to his seat in 2022.

Perry cited Simon’s new changes to the bill language to justify his argument against any sort of self-dealing. The legislation, he said, “doesn’t allow any individual in this age group to work on a roof … so it doesn’t apply to roofing at all — my business or my industry.”

Public records obtained by Orlando Weekly show that the legislation was originally fed to Sen. Simon over email by a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, a trade group that drafted the legislation in collaboration with the Florida Home Builders Association. Both represent thousands of employers across the state of Florida and have historically fought initiatives establishing higher minimum wages and have sought to prevent or erase pro-worker policies established in local communities.

Separate legislation (HB 49) that would extend the number of hours older teens are allowed to work during the school year, meanwhile, has similarly been backed by lobbying groups like the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, representing industries that “routinely” violate federal labor standards according to policy analyst Nina Mast, who’s tracking proposed child-labor law rollbacks for the Economic Policy Institute.

Sen. Perry, who’s served in the Florida legislature for over a decade, said it was fair to say his support for Senate Bill 460 is informed by his experience with his roofing company, which he says he founded when he was 17 years old.

He admitted over the phone that he didn’t have any data on-hand about how common labor violations are in the construction and roofing industries, but said he would venture to guess, based on anecdotal information, that injuries in high school football are probably much higher than those of minors on construction sites.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, children working on construction sites are six times as likely to be killed on the job compared to minors working elsewhere, although construction itself is considered a high-risk industry both for children and adults. Roofing in particular is one of the most dangerous jobs for children, the New York Times reports, but construction can also be particularly hazardous (and drives the highest number of unlicensed activity complaints in the state).

The New York Times has extensively reported on the issue of illegally employed young people, particularly unaccompanied minors working in the U.S., suffering severe injuries on construction sites and even dying on the job.

Sixteen-year-old Andrés Toma fell to his death while working to replace roofing on a home in Florida last April, according to the Times, in what OSHA described as a preventable death.  A local roofing contractor in Lake Mary, near Orlando, was fined over $50,000 in child labor penalties in 2023 after a 15-year-old they put to work the year before fell 20 feet from a home in Orlando, suffering severe head and spinal injuries. Federal investigators say the boy was hospitalized for days.

Penalties for breaking the law, however, are fairly weak, and enforcement capacity in the state of Florida is woefully lacking. Federal lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation to enhance penalties for breaking child labor law, which are currently capped at $15,138 max for each violation of federal law, or $68,801 for violations that cause serious injury or death. Fines for violations of the state’s child labor law have even lower caps.

Federal officials in the labor department have also called on Congress increase funding for the labor department’s enforcement agency, which has been flat-funded by Congress for years and is operating with near-record-low staffing levels.

Perry, the Florida senator, said he doesn’t think the bill he’s co-sponsoring will affect child labor violations in any meaningful way. “If people are violating child labor laws in construction or other areas, what would a bill … you know, they, they’re not following the law anyway,” said Perry.  “What difference will it make in that capacity, whether they’re following the laws or not?”

He added, that’d be a fair question to debate.

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