A St. Petersburg company that paid millions to settle a wage theft case is pushing a controversial bill that would prohibit local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the state’s current $10 an hour for employees and contractors.
The company, Power Design, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the political committees of key legislators, including the bill’s sponsors. And the company is tied to a mysterious group lobbying on behalf of the bill.
A Power Design spokesperson said the company didn’t write the bill but cares about its goal.
“The genesis of SB 1124 was a group of developers and construction tradesman efforts to rectify the impact that local wage ordinances are having on residential projects (especially affordable housing projects) and entry-level positions,” David Redden, a Power Design spokesperson, said in an email.
He said the group pushing the bill includes the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors and “nearly every client we know that have had projects subject to these ordinances.”
Living wage ordinances for government contractors are nothing new; Miami-Dade County passed its first one in 1999. In recent years, cities like St. Petersburg and North Miami Beach have implemented such ordinances to combat higher living costs. St. Petersburg requires its contractors to pay employees at least $12 an hour.
But some companies say such ordinances hurt efforts to recruit inexperienced, lower-skill workers who need to get their foot in the door, increasing the labor shortage. They also claim the higher wages increase the cost of construction and push that extra cost onto the consumer.
In the month before lawmakers returned to Tallahassee for the annual two-month period where they consider bills, Power Design, a construction and engineering company that has worked on various high-rise buildings in and outside of Florida, donated $5,000 to the political committees of the bill’s House and Senate sponsors — Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston.
The company also donated $5,000 to Republican Sen. Ed Hooper of Palm Harbor, who chairs an important committee for the bill to pass through; gave $25,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s political committee; and $15,000 each to Senate President Wilton Simpson’s and House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ political committees.
It had never made political contributions to Florida state legislators before September 2021.
The Associated Industries of Florida, a trade group lobbying on behalf of the bill, donated $10,000 to Gruters’ political committee in the month before session, which began Jan. 11. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, also in favor of the bill, gave $7,500 to Gruters.
Legislators involved in the bill say campaign donations don’t sway them and that they believe in removing what they see as government-created hurdles and not pricing out entry-level workers.
Harding said in a text message he wasn’t sure whether Power Design was involved with the bill, but that the bill had input from multiple groups.
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“I run and support legislation that I believe in regardless of any others who may be supporting or opposing,” Harding said. “My sponsored legislation stands on its own merit, and that’s pretty much end of the story on my side.”
The bill has moved through committees in both the House and Senate but has not yet gotten floor votes in either chamber. It’s been largely overshadowed by other high-profile, controversial bills this legislative session.
During a House hearing earlier this month, a man named Christopher Riley stood up to speak passionately in favor of the bill. He told lawmakers, “Governments cannot mandate success, and they cannot mandate how private industry operates.”
He said he was there to represent Empower the Trades. Little information is publicly available about the group. It isn’t listed on the IRS’s tax-exempt organizations or in Florida’s business records.
Records show that three of five lobbyists listed as working for the group are registered to Power Design’s corporate headquarters in St. Petersburg.
Riley is listed on Power Design’s website as a project executive in an April 2021 post. Yet while Redden referred to him as part of the team in a statement to the Times, Riley said he has his own business and hasn’t worked for Power Design in four years.
Riley said he spoke in Tallahassee after being contacted by someone from Empower the Trades two days earlier, though he did not recall who asked him to speak. He also couldn’t provide much other information about the group other than that he believed it was “a nonprofit group for the industry.”
Emails to a contact point listed on Empower the Trades’ website were not returned.
During a phone interview, Redden said Power Design is part of Empower the Trades along with other companies. He said Power Design first came in contact with the group in 2019 about a bill in Congress that would give businesses a tax credit for training an apprentice. It did not pass.
Power Design has a mottled history when it comes to employee wages. In 2020, the company was required to pay $2.75 million to workers and Washington, D.C., for a settlement of a wage theft case. Power Design was accused of misclassifying more than 500 workers as independent contractors instead of employees to avoid paying them more.
The company brings in more than $100 million a year, according to the District of Columbia Attorney General.
Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said wage ordinances are popular policies put in place by local governments familiar with their population.
“We don’t really need business owners who have a profit motive worrying about how tax dollars are spent,” he said. “And we certainly don’t need state legislators worried about how local tax dollars are spent.”
But businesses know Tallahassee is a “one-stop shop,” Templin said, to undo the work happening in all the counties across the state.
“Over the last couple of decades, private business interests have realized that they do better in Tallahassee than they do at the local level.”
Hooper said he toured Power Design’s headquarters a few months ago after a friend suggested he see the facility. Since then, Hooper said, he hasn’t had any contact with anyone from Power Design and said that at least to his knowledge they weren’t involved in the writing of the bill.
“If you look at my campaign reports you’ll see lots of five- and $10,000 contributions; it doesn’t sway one iota,” Hooper said.
The Senate version of the bill is in Commerce and Tourism, the committee Hooper heads. Gruters has asked for the bill to be heard, Hooper said.
In a February interview with reporter Jim DeFede, Gruters said he’d be willing to amend the bill to keep the higher minimum wage in existing contracts.
“This is not about the 10-to-14-dollar an hour workers,” Gruters said in the interview. “I’m happy to amend that to make sure we clarify that so all those people can be compensated accordingly.”
And in an earlier committee meeting, he said he would work on a clause to leave existing contracts alone.
Gruters did not return multiple calls and texts requesting comment. No such amendment has been filed.
Hooper said if that amendment is attached, it could fix the concern that municipalities may continue to bump their required minimum wage up during a construction project, inflating the budget.
“If the bill has any chance of being heard, I think the amendment’s going to have to be on it,” Hooper said.
Hooper said he’s also unsure if there will be another week of committee meetings for Commerce and Tourism. If there isn’t, the Gruters bill would fail.
Harding, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said he’s open to similarly amending his version of the bill.
Harding said the bill is similar to others he’s run in the past, including last year’s HB 735, which prohibits local governments from modifying licensing requirements and was signed into law by the governor.
“I’m not sure why the interest this year on something the Legislature has looked at many times,” he said.
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