TALLAHASSEE — A Republican senator looking to alter Florida’s newly adopted $15-an-hour minimum wage mandate defended his proposal amid a growing chorus of criticism.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said his proposal to amend the state Constitution to allow the Legislature to exempt convicted felons and people under 21 from the new minimum-wage requirements would help them get jobs in the future.
Brandes said studies indicate minimum wage requirements have a “disparate impact” on low-skilled workers, such as teenagers. He said he believes that “recently released incarcerated felons” also would be negatively impacted by the higher minimum wage, which is why he included felons in the proposal (SJR 854) filed last week.
“Those populations generally have an unemployment (rate) of 25 to 30 percent which is five or six times the state average unemployment rate. As the minimum wage rises, the evidence suggests it would get even harder for them (to get jobs),” he said Monday.
But Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said Brandes’ proposal isn’t the answer to the goal of ensuring everyone can get hired.
“We understand Senator Brandes’ concern about these workforce segments, but denying them a new constitutional right to a near-living wage is not the way to do it,” Templin said. “It’s state-sanctioned discrimination.”
Despite opposition from business groups, Florida voters in November approved gradually boosting the state’s minimum wage, currently $8.65 an hour, to $15 an hour by Sept. 30, 2026. Under the constitutional amendment, the minimum wage will go to $10 this September and increase by $1 each year until it reaches $15.
The amendment was self-executing and did not need legislative action, though it authorized the Legislature to pass statutes to increase the minimum wage further or to increase fines for employers who violate the minimum wage.
Brandes’ proposal would allow the Legislature to provide a reduced minimum wage for workers under age 21, for workers convicted of felonies, for state prisoners and for “other hard-to-hire employees.” The proposal doesn’t define who those hard-to-hire employees are and would leave that up to lawmakers to decide.
A super-majority of the Legislature would need to approve Brandes’ proposal because it would be a constitutional amendment. If it clears the House and Senate during the upcoming legislative session, it would need to be approved by 60 percent of Florida voters during the 2022 elections.
Well-known Orlando trial attorney John Morgan provided much of the financial backing for last year’s ballot measure to raise the minimum wage. Morgan went on social media to criticize Brandes’ proposal.
“Many in Florida still hope for slave wages. The (ballot) initiative was clear and unambiguous. The people heard all the arguments and spoke loud and clear,” Morgan posted on his Twitter account last week. “Just another example of why politicians are hated.”
Brandes said the exemptions in his proposal are only temporary, but the measure contains no time limits on how long someone could be excluded from earning the higher minimum wage --- other than the possibility a worker could turn 21 and be entitled to a raise.
Brandes said his goal was to keep “low-skilled employees” working and said the proposal would give employers the ability to develop what he called “training wage” programs.
“We are asking the voters to let the Legislature consider these issues,” Brandes said. “Because without this, there really isn’t a mechanism to quickly and at scale address this problem.”
But Templin said Florida could ban employers from asking whether job applicants are convicted felons as a way to prevent discrimination that fuels unemployment.
Templin also said there is a “faulty assumption that many of us have that anyone under 21 is a high school kid from a good home working to earn money over the summer” and said the exemption for people under 21 is “horrible.”