As Florida ushers in a teeny boost to its minimum wage, the political world is bracing for a larger battle over what the country’s lowest-paid workers should earn.
On Jan. 1, Florida’s minimum hourly wage will increase 14 cents, from $7.79 to $7.93. Tipped workers may be paid as little as $4.91 an hour as of Wednesday, provided gratuities increase their hourly wage to $7.93.
The increase comes thanks to a 2004 constitutional amendment that requires Florida to raise the minimum wage as inflation increases. The 14-cent boost amounts to a 2 percent raise for minimum-wage workers, although it would only generate an extra $5.60 for 40 hours of work.
“Fourteen cents — what’s that?” Ben Joseph, 30, said with a dismissive wave as he waited for a bus in downtown Miami to take him to his kitchen job. Joseph said he’s been earning about $9.50 an hour working for a South Beach restaurant, and that he wouldn’t be able to buy groceries if not for government food stamps.
“It’s not enough to survive,” he said.
Florida is one of 14 states increasing its minimum wages in 2014, while the federal rate will remain the same. Five states, including New York, New Jersey and California, passed laws with significant hourly increases of between 75 cents and $1. Eight of the states will see the same kind of small, automatic increase as Florida, thanks to cost-of-living provisions that kick in when the federal inflation rate rises.
The constitutional amendment in 2004 pegged Florida’s minimum wage to the federal inflation rate. But the federal minimum wage is not tied to inflation. Only Congress can increase it. Florida workers will earn 68 cents more in 2014 than they would if they were paid the federal minimum of $7.25.
Florida’s automatic increase may insulate Republican Gov. Rick Scott from a broader effort by Democrats to use the minimum wage as a wedge issue in 2014 campaigns. This week, Scott’s predecessor and potential Democratic opponent, former governor Charlie Crist, issued an op-ed urging Florida to adopt a higher minimum wage.
Democrats vying to challenge a slew of Republican governors, particularly those seeking reelection in states that President Barack Obama won in 2012, are talking up an increase as their campaigns get off the ground 11 months before the elections.
Polls say it’s publicly popular, it revives the message of economic inequality that Obama wielded effectively in winning reelection, and it comes wrapped in a broader jobs and economic message that touches on the top priority of many voting Americans.
For Democrats, campaign advisors and strategists say there’s no mandate from national party leaders to wield the issue as a weapon next year. But there’s no denying it’s popular and salient to the political battlefield, said Danny Kanner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
“The defining issue in every single one of these races is who is fighting for the middle class,” he said.
Democrats are pairing their advocacy of a minimum wage increase with criticism of cuts to corporate tax rates, public pensions or education aid that Republican governors pushed through. They also contend that the increase will revive the economy by flushing more money into the hands of consumers who spend it, and by reducing reliance on food stamps or other government programs for the poor.
If vulnerable Republicans aren’t budging on the issue, neither are the big-business groups that tend to back them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns that small employers will have the hardest time absorbing higher labor costs, while the National Federation of Independent Business warned of job losses.
“We’re not going to waver,” said NFIB spokeswoman Jean Card. “It’s the kind of thing that sounds good, but rarely are polling questions backed up with the kind of economic downside that’s inevitable.”
The push focuses on what supporters call a “living wage,’’ usually a target between $12 and $15 an hour.
For Democrats, Obama got the ball rolling on the issue by calling for an increase in his February budget speech, and union-organized demonstrations in front of profitable mega-chains such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have kept it in the public eye. Those protests included a McDonald’s on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, and a Miami Gardens Wal-Mart.
And it’s not only a popular issue with the labor unions that often provide money and volunteers to help power Democrats’ campaigns — the public warmly embraces it, too.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey this month found that more than six in 10 voting-age adults said they would support an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25, where it was last raised in 2009, to $10.10 an hour. Support to raise it to $12.50 fell to about four in 10, and fewer than three in 10 supported an increase to $15 an hour. A CBS News poll in November found that just one in four would like the federal minimum wage to remain at $7.25.
At Flanigan’s, one of the largest regional restaurant chains in South Florida, the higher minimum wage will cost the company about $60,000 in extra payroll costs for the year, said CEO Jimmy Flanigan. That’s not even a rounding error for a chain that reported $83 million in revenue in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1. Flanigan’s implemented the mandated raise — which mainly impacts the restaurant’s tipped bartenders and servers — three days early, on Sunday, to avoid complications.
But that doesn’t mean Flanigan is sanguine about the larger fight over minimum wage.
“The problem is the clamoring you hear about $12 or $15” for the minimum wage, Flanigan said. “We’re watching that very closely.”
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks and the Associated Press contributed to this report.