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  1. Opinion

Why Floridians deserve a living wage | Paula Dockery

They can’t make it on the current minimum wage. A constitutional amendment would gradually raise it to $15 an hour.
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. [Paula Dockery]

Floridians working for the minimum wage just got a raise in January. The hourly wage went from $8.46 to $8.56 an hour! Wow — an increase of a dime!

Someone working 40 hours a week full time in 2019 earned $17,596.80 a year. This year they will earn $17,804.80 — a difference of $208, or $4 per week. That’s barely enough for a gallon of milk.

Can you imagine making it as a single-wage earner on about $17,800 a year? Or a family of four with two full-time minimum wage jobs trying to get by with double that?

We can probably agree that housing, electricity, food, health care and transportation are the primary needs. What will it take just to afford these basic needs?

Let’s assume the minimum-wage earner doesn’t own a home, so he will be renting. In Lakeland, for example, the average rent is $835 for a one-bedroom apartment. That’s $10,020 yearly.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average monthly electricity bill in Florida is $126. That adds up to $1,512 a year.

The MIT living wage calculator estimates that an adult with no children living in Florida will need $250 monthly for the purchase of food. That comes to $3,000 a year, which seems a little low.

Our minimum wage earner is already at $14,532 before paying for health care insurance, medical bills and prescriptions or a car payment, insurance, gas, tolls, parking or bus fares. And how can he possibly afford phone, cable, Internet, furniture, clothing and social activities?

A minimum wage earner in Florida at the current rate of $8.56 cannot make it today. The MIT living wage calculator estimates it takes $25,324, before taxes, to be a living wage in Florida.

Let’s put that in perspective. The Federal poverty level is used to determine eligibility for federal programs. The poverty level for a single person with no children is $12,490.

To be eligible for food assistance you would have to make less than 200 percent of the poverty level or $24,980 for a one-person household. A full-time worker earning minimum wage in Florida would qualify for food assistance.

To be eligible for Medicaid a worker would have to be below the poverty level, so this full-time minimum wage earner would not qualify — meaning he would have to purchase health care insurance.

The Affordable Care Act raised the eligibility threshold for Medicaid to those making 138 percent of the poverty level if a state chose to expand Medicaid coverage to insure more of its working poor.

Florida, one of only 14 states that chose not to expand Medicaid, left some 837,000 Floridians in the coverage gap. If they had approved Medicaid expansion, minimum wage earners making less than $17,236 would qualify.

Now, more than likely, they will go uninsured. If they stopped working or worked less, they could qualify for Medicaid. By working full time, they cannot.

Florida voters can change that in November.

Amendment 2, the $15 Minimum Wage Initiative, is on the ballot. If passed by 60 percent of the voters, it would raise Florida’s minimum wage to $10 on Sept. 30, 2021, and by a dollar each Sept. 30 until it reaches $15 in 2026.

Without this constitutional change, Florida’s elected officials are likely to continue the pace of increases that we’ve seen over the past two decades. From $6.15 in 2004 to $8.56 in 2020, Florida minimum wage workers have seen a $2.41 boost in their pay over a 16-year period. That averages to 15 cents per hour each year.

Because tourism is one of our economic engines, Florida has many low-paying service industry jobs. The workers in theme parks, hotels, restaurants and other facets of the service industry are likely paid minimum wage or slightly more. Contrary to what opponents of increasing the minimum wage will tell you, these are not all students living at home.

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found:

· Two-thirds of low-wage workers are 25 to 54 years old;

· Half are primary earners or contribute substantially to the household;

· Thirty-seven percent have children.

It’s estimated that 200,000 hard-working Floridians would see an increase in pay to help meet their basic needs and become self-sufficient.

As a community, we benefit by less strain on our emergency rooms by lowering health-care costs; fewer people needing government assistance from our tax dollars; more people paying taxes, and more people having discretionary income to circulate in the economy, thus creating new jobs.

The current level of income inequality benefits no one. It just shifts costs and responsibility from employers to taxpayers at the expense of the worker who wants to earn a fair wage and pay his own way.

Don’t you think all hard-working Floridians deserve a living wage?

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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