Conservative Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and state Sen. Anitere Flores joined Democrats in Miami and across the state Monday to do what would have been unthinkable four years ago — endorse a $15 minimum wage in Florida.
The GOP leaders are running in newly-drawn districts with more Democrats and no-party-affiliated voters than they’ve ever faced before and, by endorsing the minimum wage, they get behind something that scores high on public opinion polls this year. A Sunshine State Survey found that 51 percent of Floridians surveyed support a $15 minimum wage.
“Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them,” Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said during a news conference as she was flanked by healthcare workers and janitors from the Service Employees International Union in Miami. “We’ve got to focus on all levels of government so we can restore the American Dream, so that everyone can have a shot at it and that’s why Florida needs $15.”
Flores, a Republican from Kendall, criticized the announcement by Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity last week, which said it will raise the Florida minimum wage from $8.05 per hour to $8.10 per hour to comply with a 2004 Constitutional amendment that requires the state to adjust the wage based on a cost-of-living index.
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“A whooping 5 cents an hour!” Flores said. “It makes economic sense for the minimum wage to be increased. The state of Florida has prided itself on increasing jobs for the last several years. However, we have to ensure that these are high paying jobs” in which people can earn a living wage, she said. “That is not the case that we have right now and I find that to be unacceptable.”
Flores added that for many workers in professions that require higher education degrees, like many of those in healthcare, “Florida has told them that is not enough and they will not receive commensurate pay for the work that they have.”
A study by the Miami Herald and Florida International University’s Metropolitian Center found that average wages in 42 of Florida’s 67 counties are lower today than they were before the recession in 2007, while housing and transportation costs have climbed.
An increase to $15 an hour in Florida could raise the annual salary for low-wage workers from $16,744 a year to $31,200, above the federal poverty rate of $20,160 for a family of three or $11,880 for an individual.
The endorsement of a $15 statewide minimum wage by Ros-Lehtinen and Flores was accompanied by Democrats in Miami and across that state — including state Reps. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, Daryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, former Gov. Charlie Crist and St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
It’s a stark departure from most Republicans, whose party has actively fought expanding the minimum wage in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee.
In Florida’s capital, Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, has filed bills for the last three years to raise the minimum wage to $12 or $15 an hour. Not a single bill has gotten a hearing and instead the business community has attempted to pass legislation that would preempt local governments from approving ordinances that set higher minimum wages than the state-based wage.
Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who is challenging Bullard for state Senate District 39, said Monday that Ros-Lehtinen and Flores are “both incorrect.’’
“They are placating to the middle and to liberals because of the way their seats are drawn,” he told the Miami Herald’s editorial board Monday. “It’s very easy for a public official to say we support a $15 minimum wage instead of defending the practice that is free-market driven and small-business oriented.”
Both Ros-Lehtinen and Flores are seeking reelection in districts that have been significantly redrawn by a court-ordered redistricting map. Ros-Lehtinen is seeking reelection to the 27th congressional district and faces a challenge from Democrat Scott Fuhrman. Flores is running in Senate District 39 and faces Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Both districts were won by President Barack Obama in 2012 and both have higher numbers of registered Democratic voters than either Ros-Lehtinen or Flores have faced in previous years. Flores also broke from the rest of her party in July, when she backed the Democrats’ call for a special session on restricting assault weapons after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
“This is a serious, serious issue,” said Artiles, who operates a Miami public adjuster company. “As a small business owner, if had an opportunity to force my employees to $15 an hour, I would do away with my employees and go to an automated system — leaves a name and number and I’ll call them back personally. I think it’s terrible that people who have never run a business are making decisions for small business owners.”
Flores said she doesn’t consider a $15 increase “a magic number” but instead wants to push policies that ensure that all new companies lured to Florida with economic incentives packages offer higher-wage jobs, and that the state establish policies that “encourage companies to increase their wages.” She also opposes proposals that will preempt local governments that want to set their own minimum wages.
The movement to increase the minimum wage is growing across the country. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in Doral in July that he would support an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour, and Democrat Hillary Clinton has endorsed the $15 federal minimum wage. Earlier this year, Miami Beach voted to set a city-wide minimum wage $5 higher than the state’s minimum wage.