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Minimum pay fight resumes in Capitol

The people have spoken. Now, it's the lobbyists' turn.

Voters who overwhelmingly approved a higher minimum wage two months ago might be expecting it to take effect by May as the ballot language suggested.

Not so fast, say business lobbies that failed to defeat the proposal in the Nov. 2 general election.

They are urging the Legislature to step in with a law to minimize the measure's effect on restaurants, retailers and other businesses faced with paying minimum-wage workers an extra $1 an hour.

"Florida employers need certainty and predictability in application of the new Florida minimum wage, avoiding costly and unnecessary litigation over wage issues," says a position paper presented to lawmakers Wednesday by a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Restaurant Association.

Supporters of the new $6.15 hourly wage say the amendment to the state Constitution is clear and that courts, not legislators, should resolve any disputes over what voters meant.

"What I see happening is a bill that would try to blunt the effect of the constitutional amendment, and put barriers in the way of providing enforcement of the minimum wage requirement," said Robert Williams of Florida Legal Services, which represents the organization known as ACORN that gathered signatures to put Amendment 5 on the ballot.

Both sides squared off Wednesday before a legislative committee. They were joined by familiar adversaries in a medical malpractice battle. Doctors and hospitals want new laws clarifying the effect of two new medical amendments, and trial lawyers, who favored those amendments, said no more legislative action is needed.

Lawyer Warren Husband, representing the chamber and restaurants, said a law is needed to clarify the legal definitions of "employer," "employee," and "wage." The full text of the amendment defines employer, employee and wage as the same as "the meanings established under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and its implementing regulations."

Husband said even the effective date of the higher minimum wage is not clear because the ballot language said the new wage would take effect six months after enactment. Husband said enactment could mean May 2, six months after Election Day, or May 14, six months after the date the election results were certified, or six months after the Legislature passes enabling legislation.

"The question before you is to define when that is," he said.

Williams conceded the date was not very clear. "There definitely was a better way to have written that," he said.

The amendment also calls for the minimum wage to increase each year based on inflation. Husband said the amendment's language does not specify whether Florida should use the consumer price index for urban and clerical workers used by the federal government, the Southern U.S. region or Florida metropolitan areas such as Tampa or Miami.

Equally unclear, Husband added, is a provision that allows people to file lawsuits if they face retaliation for exercising their rights under Amendment 5. "The question of what is retaliation is something that you should look at," Husband told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Williams told lawmakers the same definitions used in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act should be applied to Amendment 5.

In another twist, the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, which is expected to oversee compliance, says it has no money to do so. The agency's budget comes from the federal government, an agency official said, and it is prohibited from using federal funds to enforce a state law.

"We're not staffed or funded to enforce the amendment," agency general counsel Gary Holland told the committee. He suggested lawmakers "take a wait-and-see approach" and assess how well the change is accepted by employers and workers.

The Republican-dominated Legislature is seen as generally favorable to business, but some lawmakers acknowledge the political risks of appearing to water down what the voters intended.

They refused to follow Gov. Jeb Bush's call to repeal voter-approved amendments to reduce class sizes and build high-speed rail. The governor led a campaign last year that repealed the high-speed rail amendment and recently said he still wants to try to repeal the class-size measure.

One legislative leader said he does not yet know how to deal with the minimum wage amendment. "We've got to begin grappling with that," said House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City.

Amendment 5 passed by 71 percent of voters, a lopsided result that legislators are keenly aware of. "If a proposed amendment was passed by the people, especially by a 65-35 margin, I think we probably have an obligation to get it in a very responsible way, including a time frame," Bense said.


How the minimum wage proposal appeared on the ballot in November:

This amendment creates a Florida minimum wage covering all employees in the state covered by the federal minimum wage. The state minimum wage will start at $6.15 per hour six months after enactment, and thereafter be indexed to inflation each year. It provides for enforcement, including double damages for unpaid wages, attorney's fees, and fines by the state. It forbids retaliation against employees for exercising this right.