José J. Rodriguez


By José J. Rodríguez, and Paul Sonn

Since January 1, more than 180,000 of Florida’s lowest-wage workers -- people caring for the elderly, serving food at the local diner, and cleaning and securing our office buildings -- have been denied an annual cost of living adjustment required by law. Acting in violation of the Florida Constitution, the state failed to implement a legally mandated 6 cent increase in our minimum wage for 2011.
Paul Sonn

Back in 2004, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment -- by a lopsided 78 to 22 percent margin -- creating a state minimum wage and indexing to inflation so that it keeps pace with the rising cost of food, clothing, electricity and other necessities. Voters realized that without such protection, the ability of minimum wage earners to provide for their families would fall each year as prices rose but the minimum wage remained stagnant.

On New Year’s Day, seven states with laws like Florida’s -- Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- increased their state minimum wages to keep pace with inflation. Florida did not.

That’s why we recently filed suit on behalf of minimum wage workers against the Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI), the state agency responsible for setting the minimum wage rate every year, for refusing to properly increase the state minimum wage to $7.31 to take into account last year’s inflation.

The problems started last year. Florida’s laws, constitution and Supreme Court all make one thing crystal clear: the state minimum wage goes up when there is inflation, but never goes down. Despite this clear obligation, however, for 2010 AWI wanted to lower the minimum wage by 15 cents, from $7.21 in 2009 to $7.06. However, two things kept that erroneous wage cut from actually affecting Florida’s workers last year. First, the Agency never published the 2010 rate so no one knew about the mistake. Second, the federal minimum wage was still higher at $7.25.

This year, AWI’s mistake is affecting hundreds of thousands of working people since $7.31, where our 2011 minimum wage should be, is higher than the federal level. AWI has instead kept the Florida minimum wage 15 cents too low and failed to announce the correct increase.

A 6 cent raise may not sound like much, but for Florida’s lowest-paid workers it adds up. A full time minimum wage worker would see about $128 more per year. And unless it’s corrected, the impact of the error will snowball in future years, leaving Florida’s minimum wage permanently 15 cents lower than it should be.

The state’s failure to raise the minimum wage not only defies the constitution and the will of the voters, it also hurts low-wage workers and the statewide economy. The key to getting our economy back on track is boosting consumer spending and raising sales so businesses can grow and start rehiring again. By failing to raise the minimum wage, the purchasing power of the lowest paid workers falls, as does their consumption. If minimum wage workers make a few more dollars a week they will likely put this money immediately back into the local grocery store, barber shop or gas station, thus buoying demand for goods and services.

Floridians are looking to their new governor for leadership. As his administration begins an assessment of state agencies and departments, a top priority should be reviewing the Agency on Workforce Innovation’s blunder on the minimum wage. Rather than forcing the courts to fix the error, Governor Scott should uphold the constitution and help boost Florida’s economy by giving Florida’s low-income workers the raise they are due.
Rodríguez and Sonn are co-counsel representing minimum wage workers who have filed suit against the state of Florida for failing to raise the 2011 minimum wage. Rodríguez is an attorney with Florida Legal Services. Sonn is legal co-director at the National Employment Law Project.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Florida Forum. 3/11