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The push for a $15 minimum wage in Florida was winning. Can it survive COVID-19?

At a time when America labor has been redefined and essential employees are celebrated as everyday heroes, Florida voters in November will decide whether the value of work should change, too.

When the state locked down nursing homes this summer to block out the coronavirus, NiQwana Church was one of the few people her patients saw most days.

For those months, Church, 38, wasn’t only a certified nursing assistant. She was a stand-in for sons and granddaughters and longtime friends. She celebrated birthdays and coached people through lonely hours.

“We had to be the ones who were there for them, to tell them everything is okay," Church said.

During the pandemic, when many businesses closed or sent employees to work from home, Church’s job at a Pinellas County nursing home was deemed essential. To Church, her pay, less than $15 an hour at the time, suggested she was anything but.

“You go to work every day and it’s like Russian roulette, and you never know if you’re going to get the COVID,” said Church, who has worked in her field for two decades. “Yet, I see Walmart workers making $10 an hour and (certified nursing assistants) are making $11.”

At a time when American labor has been redefined and essential employees are celebrated as everyday heroes, Florida voters in November will decide whether the value of work should change, too. Amendment 2, on the ballot this election, would raise the state’s minimum wage, from $8.56 to $10 next September and by a dollar each year thereafter until it reaches $15 in 2026.

Related: The Florida constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained

But the coronavirus changed the climate for businesses, too, many of which face uncertain futures. Small companies have closed. Big corporations have laid off thousands of workers. The economic lifeblood of the state, the tourism and hospitality sector, took such a hard punch that some Democrats are reassessing their support of the amendment.

Raising the minimum wage would permanently shutter many restaurants and hotels, said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“It would be catastrophic to our industry,” said Dover. “We are absolutely on life support.”

Hospitality worker Ruth Monroy, of St. Petersburg, folds bedding during her shift in the laundry room at TownePlace Suites by Marriott on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Clearwater. The hotel's operator, HDG Hotel Development and Management Group, of Ocala, is part of an organization that is working to defeat Amendment 2: Florida's $15 minimum wage initiative. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Essential pandemic workers versus coronavirus-battered companies — that isn’t the debate anyone expected last year when petitioners submitted the signatures to put a minimum wage increase on the ballot. Back then, Florida’s economy hummed along at full employment. Unions and minimum wage workers argued they weren’t sharing in that prosperity.

Pandemic or not, supporters view this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If the amendment fails, there’s little hope lawmakers would pick up the mantle, not with Tallahassee controlled by Republicans, who typically side with corporate interests over those of labor. The future of democracy by referendum could also be upended this year. Another constitutional amendment on the ballot would require voters to approve any future referendums twice before they’re adopted, a herculean task.

A September Monmouth Poll found 67 percent of registered voters said they were going to vote for Amendment 2, comfortably beyond the 60 percent threshold. If it is successful, Florida by 2026 would be the ninth state with a $15 minimum wage and the only one in the Southeast.

“We’ve been fighting for this for over a decade. This might be our last chance to pass it," said Stephanie Porta, the executive director of Organize Florida, a social justice advocacy group. "I’m scared if we lose, it will set back the entire movement.”

•••

Lisa Lombardo, chief people and culture officer with HDG Hotel Development and Management Group, of Ocala, stands in front of TownePlace Suites by Marriott on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Clearwater. The hotel operator is part of an organization that is working to defeat Amendment 2: Florida's $15 minimum wage initiative. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

HDG Hotels owns and operates hotels from Clearwater to the Space Coast. February was the best month in the company’s 25-year history.

Then the coronavirus arrived.

Like many companies, HDG used federal loans to keep its workforce employed. It accelerated maintenance work and other projects while waiting for visitors to return. Lately, they’re starting to, said Lisa Lombardo, the company’s chief people and culture officer.

Raising the minimum wage next year would cost the company $1.3 million. Jobs and hours would be cut, Lombardo said.

“It’s a risky experiment right now,” Lombardo said.

Employment in Florida’s hospitality and tourism sector is down 20 percent compared to a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, worse than any other industry. The state has not tracked how many restaurants have permanently shuttered, but hardly a week passes without another family-owned local favorite or major chain closing down or filing for bankruptcy.

Even for those who have supported minimum wage hikes in the past, the financial repercussions of a state-mandated shutdown and capacity restrictions have created a future mired with uncertainty. George Sayegh, who together with his wife, Debbie, runs the popular St. Petersburg restaurants Bodega and Baba, said he was still undecided on whether he’d vote in favor of the amendment.

“It’s kind of hard to vote for something that’s just going to add another expense,” he said. “Even the strongest of us are still apprehensive about the next six months.”

On the other side are the workers deemed essential at the onset of the pandemic — that is, those employed in businesses that the government said were too important to shut down. They are disproportionately lower earners. One in 10 make less than $10 an hour, equal to $20,800 a year before taxes, according to a Brookings Institution study. Most earn between $10 and $20 an hour. They are more likely to be Hispanic or Black.

Sade Andrews, 19, a fast food worker at McDonalds, poses for a portrait after participating in a caravan to several area McDonalds restaurants to advocate for increasing the minimum wage to $15 by voting yes on amendment 2 in November, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

In Florida, health care support workers, restaurant cooks, grocery store employees, farmworkers, ambulance drivers, preschool teachers and home health care aides on average make between $11 and $14 an hour.

“For a lot of these jobs, the terms of the employment changed during the pandemic,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economics professor at George Washington University. “If you were working at a grocery store or in a shipping warehouse, you didn’t think it was a hazardous occupation when you took the job a year ago, and if someone told you it was, you may not have taken it unless they were paying you more.”

Business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce opposed a minimum wage increase even when the state’s economy was on fire, suggesting it would stunt Florida’s growth. They regularly refer to a 2017 Congressional Budget Office study that concluded raising the national minimum wage to $15 would result in the loss of 1.3 million jobs.

The same study said 17 million workers nationwide who make less than $15 an hour would see their pay go up. As many as 10 million people who make close to that would likely see a small bump, too.

Seattle, the first major city to raise its minimum wage to $15, is another frequent warning cry for opponents. Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said Seattle’s move “killed jobs, closed businesses and expanded the income gap."

Jacob Vigbor, a University of Washington professor who studied Seattle’s minimum wage increase, said layoffs were not common, but some workers, especially inexperienced part-time employees, saw a reduction in hours that offset the higher wages. Researchers didn’t find a change in the rate of businesses opening and closing, but more full-service restaurants closed as quick-service dining establishments became popular.

Prior to the pandemic, Seattle’s unemployment rate was 2.5 percent, lower than Florida’s.

“The impact was not as bad as some of the opponents had predicted,” Vigbor said. “The flip side, it was not as helpful for workers as many advocates would have suggested.”

Businesses are not a monolith in their opposition. Russell Andrade, who runs the downtown St. Petersburg restaurant and event space Iberian Rooster, said he has been advocating for a so-called living wage bill for years. Andrade said he has not been able to pay his staff much more than minimum wage in the past because doing so would have forced him to raise his menu prices significantly, something he feared would have caused him to lose his business. He supports Amendment 2.

“COVID is actually the perfect example,” Andrade said. “Some of these people have two to three jobs — when really they just need one job that pays them well."

Russell Andrade, owner of Iberian rooster/Avo's Kitchen, St. Petersburg, poses in his business, Tuesday, September 22, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

•••

Minimum wage referendums are 23-0 since 1996, according to Ballotpedia, a website that tracks election results. In the last four years, voters in Arkansas, Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington approved minimum wage increases by margins that candidates almost never see on Election Day, a demonstration of their popularity.

When a minimum wage amendment was on the ballot in Florida 16 years ago, some of the biggest businesses in the state, like Publix, Disney and Outback Steakhouse, put up $4.1 million for an opposition campaign that ultimately failed.

This year, the opposition has raised less than $500,000. Amanda Bevis, spokesperson for the opposition campaign, blamed the pandemic and said Florida’s businesses are “laser-focused on keeping their teams employed.”

Republicans have stepped up efforts to rally Floridians against it. Democrats, meanwhile, have been noticeably reserved on what is traditionally a bedrock of their platform. After staying neutral for most of the summer, the Florida Democratic Party quietly passed a supportive resolution in August.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat elected statewide in Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times in August that she remained on the fence. A spokeswoman declined to say this week if Fried had picked a side. But like Republicans, Fried was worried a minimum wage hike would hurt state businesses.

David Flower, general manager of TownePlace Suites by Marriott in Clearwater, works with Dawn Vaughn, housekeeping supervisor, on a punch list of cleaning tasks on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, at the hotel in Clearwater. The hotel's operator, HDG Hotel Development and Management Group, of Ocala, is part of an organization that is working to defeat Amendment 2: Florida's $15 minimum wage initiative. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Before the pandemic, Fried would’ve been more inclined to support it, she said. "But times are very different now.”

Orlando attorney John Morgan, who funded the effort to get the minimum wage amendment on the ballot, called Fried’s position “very disappointing” and “so out of line with Democrats.”

“You’re seeing the unrest in America,” Morgan said. “The underlying tension — for white Trump voters, the Bernie bros, Black Lives Matter, everything — the tension is because of income inequality. The middle class is shrinking and the have-nots are becoming more desperate."

Morgan’s political committee has raised $4.7 million since January. Meanwhile, a coalition of groups led by fast-food workers (Fight for $15) and organized labor (Service Employees International Union) have held socially distanced rallies to raise awareness for Amendment 2.

Alex Harris, a 23-year-old server at a Tampa Waffle House, said people like him cannot afford to put this effort on hold until after the pandemic. Harris recently left Checkers for better pay, but it now takes him two buses and sometimes two hours to get home. With rent and other expenses, he can’t save enough on his current wages to explore his real passion: Motivational speaking.

Harris knows many Black Floridians who feel disenchanted by electoral politics. But there is more energy lately to vote for a minimum wage increase after everything low-income workers experienced this year.

“A lot of people were starting to not believe in voting because of the countless, senseless killings and people feel like it doesn’t matter who is in office,” Harris said. “But I’m able to teach people more and more that you can vote this year and fight for yourself.”

Alex Harris, 24, an employee at Waffle House, poses for a portrait after participating in a caravan to several area McDonalds restaurants to advocate for increasing the minimum wage to $15 by voting yes on amendment 2 in November, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide now at tampabay.com/voterguide.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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