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  1. Business

Romano: Nothing Goofy about Disney's $15 minimum wage

Walt Disney World recently reached a deal with its largest union to gradually increase worker wages to $15 an hour by October, 2021. The decision could have a ripple effect in Florida, where the current minimum wage is $8.25. [TNS/Orlando Sentinel]
Published Sep. 5, 2018

When they redesigned Tomorrowland in the '90s, the folks at Disney World culled ideas from long-ago science fiction writers to create a retro look ahead. The Future That Never Was, they called it.

Basically, it was a lot of kitsch and coasters with little in common with reality.

Now, all these years later, there is another vision for the future that once seemed too bold and farfetched for tourist-driven Florida. Except this time, Disney will have a hand in the new reality.

Welcome to the $15 minimum wage.

Workers with Disney's largest union are voting to accept an offer that will gradually raise wages to $13 an hour by next year and then to $15 by the end of 2021.

In a state where the current minimum wage is $8.25, this is not an insignificant moment. Especially for a company with around 70,000 employees in central Florida.

"If I'm working for $8.25 at wherever, and I'm using similar-type skills, then I'm going across the street to Disney World looking for a job that guarantees me higher pay and raises,'' said Sylvia Allegretto, economist and co-chair at the Center on Wage & Employment Dynamics at the University of California Berkeley, which has a major study on minimum wage coming out today.

"That creates competition for workers, and other businesses are going to have to respond to avoid losing their best workers and getting into problems with turnover.''

And, quick as a mouse, the conversation may be changing in Florida.

It's still a long way from the mainstream, but the $15 minimum wage is no longer just a fringe policy idea from progressives. This isn't the government sticking its nose in private businesses; it's the free market at work, and it could have a ripple effect throughout the state.

Even before Disney's deal with workers, attorney John Morgan was toying with the idea of a minimum wage constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. The preliminary plan would raise the state's minimum wage to $10 in 2021 with annual $1 increases until reaching $15 in 2026.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the percentage of workers below minimum wage in Florida is second in the nation, which is a nod both to the number of service-industry jobs and our low wages.

For St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, there is a bit of validation in all of this. Kriseman pushed for a $15 minimum wage for city workers by 2020, and has boosted the current rate to $14.25.

"Aside from being the right thing to do for our workers, we thought that it was good business, too,'' Kriseman said. "So, yeah, it's nice to see an employer like Disney recognize that. I certainly hope the private business community says, 'We've got to take a look at what Disney is doing here.'?"

It's not just the business community that should be paying attention.

Florida lawmakers ignored medical marijuana for so long that voters took it upon themselves to pass a constitutional amendment in 2016, and Tallahassee had to scramble to control its rollout.

Politicians could be facing a similar situation with the minimum wage. If they think $15 is too extreme — and that seems to be the popular opinion in the Republican-controlled Capitol — they might want to navigate some middle ground before voters are asked to get involved.

As Disney has proven, this isn't just a Goofy idea.

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