Minimum Wage: Judge Says Florida Stiffed Its Workers

Florida Stiffed Its Workers On Minimum Wage: Judge

WASHINGTON -- A Florida judge has ruled the state violated its own constitution when it failed to raise the minimum wage for 2011. As a result, the rate will be bumped from $7.25 to $7.31 an hour as of June 1.

Six cents an hour may not sound like a lot of money, but it adds up if you happen to be among the working poor. That six cent differential makes for an extra 48 cents a day, $2.40 a week, or $124.80 a year. Considering that the lower rate will last through May, the mistake will have taken $52 apiece out of the pockets of the state's roughly 200,000 minimum-wage earners.

According to a lawsuit, the lower rate was the result of bad accounting. Florida is one of a handful of states where the minimum wage is adjusted each year to account for the change in the cost of living. For the year 2009, the state decreased the minimum wage due to a rare spell of deflation. But according to the ruling, the rate is supposed to hold steady during deflationary periods. No one noticed the mistake at the time -- or during 2010 -- because the federal rate of $7.25 an hour trumped the lower state rate.

But worker advocates took notice last fall, when the state rate announced for 2011 was still no higher than the federal rate. When the state didn't respond to their pleas, the worker groups sued, along with four low-wage earners -- a restaurant worker and three farm workers -- claiming that the rate should be $7.31. The circuit court judge ruled that the rate can never be decreased and that the state must use the formula laid out in the state constitution to calculate future wages.

As of yesterday, the stated minimum wage was changed on the webpage for the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state agency that is responsible for setting the wage and that was named in the lawsuit. The same six-cent increase will apply to minimum-wage tipped employees, whose rates will go from $4.23 to $4.29.

In a statement to the Huffington Post, a spokesperson for the Agency for Workforce Innovation said the agency is "surprised and disappointed at the judge’s ruling in the minimum wage lawsuit. However, we respect the judge’s order and effective June 1, 2011, Florida’s minimum wage will be $7.31 per hour."

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said she and her colleagues are celebrating what they consider a victory for the state's most vulnerable workers. "We're just glad that workers are going to see that six-cent increase in their paycheck," said Gebreselassie, whose group was among the appellants. "Nobody disputes that the cost of food and gas and rent is going up a lot. It's hard to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour, and it's hard to make it on $7.31. But every little bit counts."

In 2004, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to raise the minimum wage annually when there's inflation. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, there are two bills currently in the legislature that if passed would allow the state to drop the wage during times of deflation. Cost-of-living adjustments are often the target of restaurant groups and other trade groups representing industries that rely on low-wage labor.

Jose Javier Rodriguez, an attorney with Florida Legal Services, said the six-cent adjustment would put another $28 million into the hands of minimum-wage earners and, ultimately, Florida businesses.

"That's money spent directly back into the economy," said Rodriguez, whose group was among those suing the state. "If you're low-wage it's not like you're putting that money into your IRA."

The money that minimum-wage earners lost due to the goof this year probably cannot be recouped, according to Rodriguez. Businesses are required only to pay the minimum wage that the state has officially posted, and the lower rate will remain in effect through the end of this month.

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