Florida joins just seven other states in the process of raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour. And it’s the first state to raise the minimum wage to as high as $15 an hour via ballot measure.
The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also supports a $15 minimum wage, while President Trump has said he believed the issue should be left up to states to decide.
The ballot win was another moment of success for labor and minimum wage advocates, who have won a series of statewide victories in recent years to raise the minimum wage, as consciousness about the struggles faced by low-wage workers to pay basic living expenses has grown.
This energy has galvanized the Fight for $15, an advocacy movement focused on getting corporate chains to lift wages to $15 an hour. The effort is backed by unions like the Service Employees International Union, which have organized protests and marches over the years around the country.
In the case of Florida, the initiative was due in large part to the work and backing of John Morgan, a lawyer and businessman in the Orlando area who bankrolled the expensive effort to get the measure on the ballot.
In an interview, Morgan said he spent more than $5 million of his own money on the effort, saying that he viewed the question of whether businesses would be required to pay a living wage to employees as an existential one in a wealthy country like the United States.
“What I personally believe the unrest in America is really all about, whether you’re a Bernie bro or a Trump supporter in the Midwest — it’s about income inequality,” he said. “Every great society can crumble because the haves have too much and the have-nots don’t have enough.”
The political debate over the amendment in Florida played out across the typical lines of debate that have played out in other states and cities where minimum wage increases have been discussed.
Business and industry groups, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, came out strongly against it, saying that it would hurt the hospitality industry and other businesses already reeling from the effects of the pandemic. Republicans in the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have argued against it.
“I’m going to have to increase prices,” said John Horne, the owner of Anna Maria Oyster Bar, a restaurant group with four locations near St. Petersburg and about 260 employees. Horne is also on the executive board of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “And when I increase prices, I’ll lose cover accounts. And I won’t need all the employees. I’m concerned they’re going to lose hours.”
On the other side, labor advocates, Democrats and others who believe that minimum wage should be a living wage lined up to support for the amendment.
Jamelia Fairley, 25, a single mother in Sanford, Fla., said she has trouble paying her bills — rent on an apartment she splits with a roommate, and food for her 3-year-old daughter — on the $10 an hour salary she makes at a McDonald’s.
“Increasing the minimum wage would help me a lot — me and my daughter,” she said. “Having food in the house. It would help me a lot to save money. I’m supporting this amendment because I feel like it will help a lot of people get out of poverty or homelessness.”
Scott Fuhrman, the owner of Lakewood Organic, a juice company in Miami that employs about 100 people, said that he supported the measure, after seeing the change in his workers when he increased hourly wages at his company to $15 a couple of years ago.
“We saw an immediate reduction in errors and turnover to some extent,” Fuhrman said. “It’s not just ethically right, it’s necessary to help our economy get out of this current malaise that we’re in, this economic catastrophe. We have to put more money into the pockets of the people who are going to go spend it.”
Florida voters approved a ballot measure to create a $6.15 minimum wage back in 2004.
Ballot measures have become a tool for voters in conservative-leaning, as well as “purple” states where legislatures have declined or been unwilling to pass minimum wage increases to effect the change themselves, said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a minimum wage expert at the National Employment Law Project. These states include Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, and Ohio, she said.
“Often times this has happened in states where legislatures are not friendly to it but it’s very clear that [a] majority of electorate supports it,” she said.
The states that have approved $15 an hour minimum wage increases are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
Minimum wage increases are typically popular among the electorate. Since 2000, states have held 21 referendums on the minimum wage, and all have passed, according to a tally kept by Ballotpedia. Public opinion surveys have shown broad support; a 2019 Pew survey found that two-thirds of Americans supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In Florida, the issue has polled well, with a September Monmouth survey finding 67 percent of registered voters saying they would support the measure. In Florida, ballot measures need support from 60 percent of the electorate to pass.
According to the Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Orlando, the measure would help more than one million households living near the poverty line in the state, increase wages for 2.5 million people — more than a quarter of the workforce — and help reduce racial and gender disparities in pay.