A $15 Minimum Wage Could Be Coming Soon To Florida

Florida voters can show the appeal of $15 an hour outside liberal strongholds by approving a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot.

Low-wage workers in Florida’s sprawling service economy may soon find themselves on the path to a $15 minimum wage, thanks to one of the most far-reaching referendums in the country this year.

Along with possibly determining the outcome of the presidential election, Florida voters are now deciding whether to pass what’s known as Amendment 2: a proposal to raise the statewide wage floor from its current $8.56 an hour to $15 an hour by 2026. The measure is drawing strong opposition from the state’s food and hospitality industries, which say they can’t sustain the higher labor costs on top of lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If passed, the amendment would give Florida the highest minimum wage among Southern states and impact an estimated 2.5 million workers. The wage floor would rise to $10 next year, and then increase $1 each year thereafter until it hit $15 in 2026. After that, it would adjust annually according to an inflation index.

The ballot measure could have implications well beyond the Sunshine State. There are seven other states already on track to hit $15 in the coming years, but those tend to be blue states with liberal labor policies. Florida is a purple battleground state, with Republicans in control of the governor’s mansion and the statehouse. It isn’t known for putting new mandates on employers.

If the ballot measure were to pass, it would demonstrate that a $15 minimum wage ― the rallying cry of the Fight for $15 campaign in the fast food industry ― carries support outside Democratic strongholds like California and New York. Some proponents also say passage of Amendment 2 could help the push for a $15 wage floor at the federal level, especially if Democrats win the White House and control of the Senate.

“I think the significance of Florida is it is a pivotal swing state,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive political action group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “If $15 passes in Florida, it will send a clear message to the incoming [Biden] administration that raising the minimum wage is not just good policy but also good politics.”

Geevarghese’s group has been calling its members in Florida to urge them to vote yes on the amendment. But despite the general popularity of minimum wage hikes ― most have sailed through on the ballot in recent years ― the Florida proposal is by no means a sure thing.

As an amendment to the state constitution, the measure requires 60% approval from voters. Polls tend to show about two-thirds of respondents nationally support the idea of raising the minimum wage. A recent poll specifically on Amendment 2 conducted by the University of North Florida put support right around the 60% threshold.

“I think we feel good, but we need to turn out every single voter in the state,” said Stephanie Porta, the executive director of Organize Florida, a progressive group that supports the referendum.

Florida voters last approved a minimum wage increase in 2004, when they voted to raise it to $6.15 per hour. The current minimum wage is $8.56 thanks to inflation adjustments included in the 2004 referendum, but progressive advocates say that still falls far short of a living wage, especially in parts of the state where housing and other basic costs of living have risen rapidly. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and hasn’t been raised in more than a decade.

“If $15 passes in Florida, it will send a clear message to the incoming administration that raising the minimum wage is not just good policy but also good politics.”

- Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution

A single adult with no children would need to make more than $12 an hour to earn a living wage in Florida, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That rises to nearly $14 for a couple with one child (where both adults are working) and more than $25 for a single adult with one child.

The increase to $15 would boost pay for about a quarter of the state’s workforce, according to the Florida Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. It would especially benefit women of color, who already earn on average less per hour than women and workers overall. A third of Florida’s female workers would see a raise; 38% of women of color in the workforce would receive a pay increase, the institute says.

But Jay Johnson, who owns Bubba’s Roadhouse & Saloon in Cape Coral, said his business couldn’t withstand the wage increases without cutting hours or hiking prices on customers, or both. He said his main concern is how the proposal raises wages for tipped workers.

Florida has a $3.02-per-hour “tip credit” for business owners. It’s what allows Johnson to pay a server $5.54 before gratuities, rather than $8.56, under the current minimum wage. That $3.02 credit would stay under the new law, but it would have less impact over time. Once the regular minimum wage hit $15, Johnson would have to pay his servers at least $11.98 per hour, more than double what he pays them now, before gratuities.

He said the money to pay servers’ wages may come out of raises for kitchen staff, even though servers tend to earn more due to tips.

If Amendment 2 passes, Florida will become the first state in the South on track to reach a $15 minimum wage.
If Amendment 2 passes, Florida will become the first state in the South on track to reach a $15 minimum wage.
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

“Any restaurant that’s on the bubble right now, especially with COVID ― when they have those additional costs, I don’t know if they make it through,” said Johnson, who heads the Lee County chapter of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

According to Ballotpedia, political spending in favor of the amendment has dwarfed the money opposing it, by a roughly 10-1 margin. Much of the financial backing for the amendment has come from the law firm of John Morgan, a high-profile Florida attorney who represents workers in class-action lawsuits.

Supporters of the amendment argue that the wage increase wouldn’t hurt Florida’s economy or job growth. The Florida Policy Institute, in its report on the referendum, pointed to a 2005 study that found “no empirical evidence” that Florida’s last, more modest minimum wage increase caused employers to lay off workers.

Progressive groups like Organize Florida have tried to use the ballot initiative to engage and register new voters, in hopes of boosting turnout especially among the Black and Hispanic populations, two voting blocs that could determine the fate not only of the minimum wage measure but of races up and down Florida’s ballot, including the presidential contest.

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited in-person organizing efforts, especially in the lower-income communities that would benefit most from the wage increase, and progressive groups and the Florida Democratic Party fell short of their voter registration targets.

Still, the minimum wage referendum may have boosted their efforts. Porta, of Organize Florida, pointed to a conversation she had this summer with a Hispanic woman who had never voted and didn’t plan to this year ― until Porta mentioned the minimum wage measure. The woman, Porta said, immediately asked where she could register.

“We need to turn out every single voter in the state.”

- Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Florida

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and Democrats and progressives in Florida hope that support for Amendment 2 could boost his chances of defeating President Donald Trump in the crucial swing state.

But the approval of progressive ballot measures isn’t necessarily linked to Democratic success in statewide races. In 2018, Florida voters said yes on a referendum to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, a major progressive priority, even as Republicans Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott won narrow victories in the state’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, respectively.

DeSantis and Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature promptly worked to roll back Amendment 4, the voting rights restoration referendum, even though nearly two-thirds of voters had supported it at the polls. There are already worries that Florida Republicans might try to weaken the minimum wage measure if it wins next week, although the structure of the law would make it more difficult to unwind.

“I’m sure the legislature will try to screw with it,” Porta said. “They always try to go against the people ― that is their M.O. But we will be ready to fight.”

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