Low-Wage Latino Workers Could Be Key to 2016 Election

By Hector Sanchez and Minor Sinclair As Published in the Orlando Sentinel

Two in five working Latinos would get a raise under the bill recently introduced in Congress by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour over five years.

The federal minimum wage is the hot-button issue that may factor decisively in the 2016 elections in Florida and across the country. During the past two years, 16 states and 15 cities or counties voted in referenda or state legislatures to raise local minimum-wage levels, and more state and local initiatives are planned for next year's presidential election.

Politicians are paying attention to the Latino vote, and Latinos are paying attention to the candidates who support increasing the minimum wage, now stuck about 25 percent below what it was in 1968, adjusting for inflation.

If Florida represents the key swing state, and Latinos figure as a key swing demographic, then the minimum-wage issue may be the swing-voter issue -- and critical for either the one or possibly two open Senate seats in Florida. Nationally, the Democrats solidly back the increase; so far, congressional Republicans haven't budged. But the math next year may make them reconsider.

Polls now show that more than 70 percent of Latino independents in Florida would support a candidate who backs an increase in the minimum wage. Overall, increasing the minimum wage enjoys support from 75 percent of voters, including 53 percent of Republicans, according to a January poll by Hart Research Associates.

Raising the wage would help people like Mariamee Rodriguez, a 42-year-old mother of two in Miami who also takes care of a disabled parent. If Rodriguez is lucky, she is paid $1,000 a month from her job in a private mental-health facility. She loves her job, but receives no health insurance or paid leave, a challenging circumstance exacerbated by her 20-year-old daughter who suffers from a chronic lung condition.

"A family of four can't survive on $12,000 a year," Rodriguez said. "I sometimes have to stop paying one of our bills because I need to pay for my daughter's medications. I get food stamps, but because Florida hasn't approved Medicaid expansion, I have a daughter who could die."

Latinos like Rodriguez work hard; yet in 11 states, more than half of Latino workers have wages of less than even $11.50 per hour, as do 44 percent of Latino workers in Florida, according to recent research by the Economic Policy Institute and Oxfam America. Just more than one-third of private-sector Latino workers have employer-provided health insurance or get a pension plan through their employers. They cook food in hot restaurant kitchens, clean office buildings while most office workers sleep, process food on assembly lines, and work in the fields to harvest American produce.

Poor government labor standards and educational opportunities have stifled economic mobility for too many U.S. workers. Instead of providing good-paying jobs, our economy generates unprecedented corporate profits while leaving hard-working Americans with low and stagnant wages.

So, why should lawmakers pay attention to Latinos when it comes to raising the minimum wage? The number of Latinos has grown from 3 percent to 17 percent of the U.S. population in the past 50 years . By 2050, Latinos will comprise nearly 30 percent of all working-age Americans. A minimum-wage increase would mean tens of billions of dollars in additional purchasing power.

Latinos also have become an ever larger share of the electorate, not just in Florida, but in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada as well -- as politicians are keenly aware. In recent elections, Democratic candidates have outperformed the Republicans in the Latino vote, making the issue of Republican support -- or not -- of raising the wage even more determinant in swaying Latino voters to their cause.

Today, hard-working Latinos are raising their voices by calling for an overdue raise for all low-wage workers. They rightly demand an end to wage and immigration policies that drive wages down, hinder upward mobility, and erode labor standards.

In a nation made great by immigration and predicated on the principle of opportunity for all, it is horribly wrong not to have a minimum wage and an economy that enable all workers to provide for their families and give their children opportunities for a better life. Tens of millions of workers like Rodriguez need and deserve a better life.

Minor Sinclair is the director of Oxfam America's program in the U.S. Hector Sanchez is the executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda.