TALLAHASSEE — On a day when Floridians were sharply divided over the direction of the country, voters gave enthusiastic support on Tuesday for an idea that could have a sweeping impact on the state: raising the state’s minimum wage.
Overcoming threats from business groups that the idea would wreak economic devastation, just over 60 percent of Floridians voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. That’s about 720,000 more votes than Tuesday’s presidential winner in Florida, Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, those business groups appeared resigned to the measure. Some companies and their employees celebrated. Others were left wondering whether Republican lawmakers would try to subvert it as they have with other measures passed by voters.
“The decision has been made, and Florida retailers will work to meet the new requirements while keeping as many jobs on the payroll as possible,” said Scott Shalley, president and CEO of Florida Retail Federation. “But right now, we’re focused on surviving COVID-19.”
Florida is now the eighth state in the country to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour in the near future.
Businesses will have nearly 11 months to adjust. Amendment 2, passed Tuesday, doesn’t take effect until Sep. 30, 2021, when the state’s minimum wage rises from $8.56 per hour to $10 per hour. The wage will rise by $1 per hour every Sep. 30 until Sep. 30, 2026, when it reaches $15 per hour.
After that, the minimum wage increases every year with inflation, just like it does now.
The primary supporter of the amendment, Orlando attorney John Morgan, said it would lift tens of thousands of Floridians out of poverty and give Floridians more spending power. Because the state is so reliant on low-wage service workers, Florida’s average income is just 87.4 percent of the national average, a rate that’s been getting worse.
“Rising tides lift all boats,” Morgan said.
Leading business groups, which contribute heavily to Republican lawmakers, came out strongly against the amendment, however, stating that it would lead to layoffs, speed up automation or reduce employees' hours.
"In these difficult times, this costly amendment hurts the very local businesses trying to survive the COVID-19 pandemic,” Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson said in a statement.
The language in the amendment appears simple and unambiguous. But some are already wondering whether Republican lawmakers will try to undermine the amendment by passing a bill “implementing” it. Over the last two decades, Floridians have passed many constitutional amendments, only to see Republican lawmakers curb their impact.
When voters approved medical marijuana in 2016, lawmakers imposed numerous restrictions that led to multiple disputes before the Florida Supreme Court. When voters in 2018 allowed felons the right the vote, Republican legislators chose to require felons pay off all court debts before voting, drastically reducing the number of people allowed to vote.
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“If they do try to mess with it, I will promise you this: I will sue them, and I will win,” said Morgan, who said he spent about $6 million of his own money to get the ballot measure created and passed.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he had “not studied” potential legislative tweaks to Amendment 2. But he said the Legislature would implement the will of the voters.
“Certainly we are not looking for mischievous opportunities to change it," Simpson said. “It’s pretty clear what voters voted on.”
For many companies, the outcome was irrelevant.
Leading retailers have already started moving wages to $15 an hour. Amazon did so in 2018. Target followed the next year. In September, Walmart announced it would be shifting some of its $11 hourly wages to $15 or higher for its employees in the bakery and deli departments. The retailer said most front line hourly workers were getting at least a $1 bump at their super centers.
Walmart’s warehouse wages are at $15 to stay competitive with Amazon, but the Arkansas chain is also giving those workers up to $3 more an hour as a holiday pay boost this season.
Florida grocers, on the other hand, still keep some wages closer to the current minimum wage. Publix had a recent job posting for a deli clerk in Sarasota that said pay can range between $12.30 and $15.55 per hour but another posting for a bagger in Tampa stated the hourly wage could begin at $10. The Lakeland chain couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands, the owner of Outback Steakhouse, was preparing for the hourly wage increase ahead of the amendment vote. CEO David Deno told the Tampa Bay Times last month that many of its employees were already making $15 an hour.
“We will see some impact, but we are confident with our ability to stay ahead of this and adapt to the change,” Cathie Koch, the company’s vice president of corporate affairs, said on Wednesday. “The phased-in approach gives everyone time to adjust.”
In Miami, some restaurant owners showed how they could adapt to higher wages.
Zak Stern, who launched South Florida’s artisanal bread craze at Wynwood’s Zak the Baker, has been raising his employee salaries over the last three years to a $15 minimum this year, despite how the coronavirus affected his bottom line.
“Look, we did it. We proved you can do it,” he said. “I baked it into the model.”
That meant adjusting his business model, which includes sales to South Florida’s Whole Foods Markets. He eliminated overtime and went to a four-day, 10-hour-a-day work week to cut down on the chance of overtime. “It cut down on the creep of an hour here or there,” he said. It also allowed workers to supplement with other part-time service jobs and also include a day off.
“The team feels less burned out,” he said.
Paying higher wages helped Zak the Baker retain employees, he said. It helped keep lower-paid workers from jumping ship for a dollar-an-hour increase. That cut down on the overtime for staff making up for being down a person and the cost of training a new employee. He figures he saved $1,500 a year per employee he might have lost — and that adds up in the service industry which often sees high turnover.
Pincho, a Miami-based burger and kebab chain with locations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, pays all of its 150 employees at eight locations above the $15 minimum, said CEO Otto Othman. He said he has seen the higher wage lead to “happier team members and better productivity.”
“Higher wages will most likely lift people out of poverty and that is definitely a huge win,” Othman said.
Times/Herald staff writer Kirby Wilson and Herald staff writer Rob Wile contributed to this report.
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