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In plea to hike minimum wage, Democratic lawmakers to live on $17 a day for a week

Activist Karen Lieberman, 65, center, asked Eric Lynn if his mortgage or electric bill would go unpaid in the challenge. “He told me he would not be able to pay either on $8.05 an hour.”
Activist Karen Lieberman, 65, center, asked Eric Lynn if his mortgage or electric bill would go unpaid in the challenge. “He told me he would not be able to pay either on $8.05 an hour.”
Published Sep. 29, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — State Rep. Dwight Dudley drives an 11-year-old Toyota SUV and shops at Sam's Club and Big Lots.

But his modest standard of living will take a hit on $17 a day as part of the "minimum wage challenge," a campaign by the Service Employees International Union to draw attention to the effort to raise Florida's minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The $17 per day is what the average minimum wage worker has left after paying the rent and utilities. To get by this week, Dudley plans to take the bus or ride his bike. He'll forgo his favorite $6.95 chicken curry lunch special.

"It's hardly a facsimile of someone who's living day to day," Dudley acknowledged Monday after a rainy news conference in front of a McDonald's on 62nd Avenue N.

News conferences were also held Monday in Miami and Orlando. At least four state senators and 14 House members, all Democrats, agreed to take the challenge. They include Reps. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey and Ed Narain of Tampa.

The goal, organizers said, is to highlight the plight of people like Patricia Walker of Tampa, a home health care worker.

"I have to make a choice whether to pay my rent, pay my light bill or feed myself," Walker, 54, said.

Florida's minimum wage, which increased to $8.05 an hour in January, has been gradually rising since 2004, when voters adopted a constitutional amendment calling for the wage to be adjusted annually based on a cost-of-living index. The federal minimum of $7.25 has not been raised since 2009.

According to data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a living wage for an adult and a child in the state of Florida is $23.01 per hour for a full-time, 40-hour work week. In Tampa Bay, it's $22.71, and in South Florida, it's $24.34. Those costs of living assume the minimum when it comes to housing, food, transportation and health care.

This month, state Sen. Dwight Bullard and Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, called on lawmakers to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Supporters acknowledge the plea won't likely be answered by the Republican-controlled Legislature. But Rouson said he's hopeful that Democrats can drive the conversation and address concerns of owners of small- to medium-sized businesses.

"I tell them: What are you offering?" Rouson said. "If $15 is too much or undeserved, what do you think is a living wage so you can have a happier and more productive employee?"

Advocates in what has become a national movement are racking up wins. The Los Angeles City Council voted earlier this year to raise the minimum wage to $15 over five years, following similar moves in San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2020.

Lawmakers taking part in the challenge have a budget of $85 this week, excluding housing, car payments, credit card bills and child care expenses, so they're getting off easy, said Bleu Rainer, 26, of Tampa. The former McDonald's worker is about to start at Burger King and served as emcee for Monday's event.

Rainer offered some advice for lawmakers: Stock up on canned goods, ramen noodles and prepackaged lunch meat.

"Splurging is not even an option," he said.

Rouson, a lawyer, said he will forgo business lunches for brown bags and will launder his own shirts. He acknowledged he and his wife have to be realistic with five sons at home.

"We're only spending that which is critical and necessary to operate the house and our existence," he said. "Anything else is being absolutely scrutinized."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.