Op-Ed

Florida should do better by its minimum-wage workers

TNS

If you work full-time all year round at the current Florida minimum wage of $8.05, you’d still be making less than the federal poverty level. You’d also qualify for public assistance. That shouldn’t be.

Recently, 11 of my legislative colleagues and I took the minimum wage “challenge.” We tried living on a minimum-wage budget for five days as a symbolic gesture to raise awareness about how tough it is.

We found that sticking to the budget was only doable without the curveballs that real life throws us every day. A bus that’s half an hour late forces you to rely on more expensive alternatives. An unexpected trip to the doctor breaks the budget very quickly.

Minimum-wage earners tend to be their family’s breadwinners, making on average more than half of their families’ income, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Most work full time, and 89 percent are adults, not teens — so the image of teenage summer-camp counselors or part-time students as the minimum-wage workforce is not accurate.

There are two things we ought to do in Florida for the hundreds of thousands who work at the bottom of the pay scale.

The first is to enforce the minimum wage. Many working people at the minimum wage don’t actually make the minimum. Whether they are forced to work off the clock for part of the week, work more hours than their paycheck reflects or are paid a daily rate that works out to less than $8.05 an hour, too many are shortchanged by employers seeking a competitive advantage over honest businesses by cheating.

Without proper enforcement it does not take long for cheating to become widespread. In certain industries, it has. The good news is we have tools to address the problem. The bad is that, so far, we haven’t had the political will in Florida.

When voters created the state minimum wage by ballot initiative in 2004, they chose to give the Florida attorney general the authority to enforce it. That would mean several things. Outreach is important because it’s not easy for workers to come forward and, when they do, many workers don’t know where to turn. Investigation is important because where there is one underpaid worker, there are sure to be others. Finally, the willingness to bring legal enforcement actions against minimum-wage cheaters is important if we expect results.

Since the minimum wage was enacted in 2004, however, we have had none of the above. The office of our current attorney general, Pam Bondi, conducts no outreach or investigation and limits enforcement to trying to conciliate by phone or correspondence the handful of unpaid workers who happen to find her office seeking help. That is nowhere close to enough.

Her office should follow the lead of other state attorneys general in New York, Illinois, California and Massachusetts that have prioritized minimum-wage compliance. Their efforts have been credited with curbing, or even ending, wage cheating in certain industries where it had become widespread.

The scale of the compliance problem is evident in federal statistics, academic studies and in conversation with workers employed in any industry with a large low-wage workforce. With limited resources and a more limited mandate than Bondi has, Miami-Dade County’s wage-theft program has recovered millions from unpaid or underpaid workers annually.

How much more could Bondi accomplish if she made it a priority?

The second thing we could do for low-wage Floridians is to follow the lead of other cities who have decided to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Florida, adding an extra $1 or $1.50 on top of annual increases for inflation would get us there after five years. That’s more than enough time for businesses and other economic actors to adjust — and we owe it to hardworking Floridians in our lowest paid jobs.

José Javier Rodríguez is the state representative from District 112.

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