National News

Minimum wage fight doesn't have to be all or nothing in Florida

Posted January 3, 2018 9:31 p.m. EST

In case you missed it, the minimum wage went up in Florida this week.

Admittedly, it wasn't headline-grabbing news. An extra 15 cents an hour is not going to dramatically help employees or harm their employers. It's simply an incremental boost tied to a cost-of-living index that works better in theory than reality.

The more important issue is this: Where does Florida go from here?

Because attorney John Morgan is gearing up for a constitutional amendment in 2020 that would raise the state's minimum wage to $15. This notion makes liberals giddy, and drives conservatives insane.

It should also get legislators in Tallahassee to finally pay attention.

This is not all that different from the medical marijuana issue that the Legislature stubbornly ignored until Morgan spearheaded a constitutional amendment that passed easily in 2016.

Lawmakers missed their chance to frame medical marijuana laws, and they could make the same mistake if they don't address the question of Florida's minimum wage.

Because there are two things I'm fairly sure about:

1. The current rate of $8.25 is way too low.

2. The proposed $15 rate sounds way too high.

While it's true our minimum wage is higher than 22 other states and is a full dollar better than the federal standard, it hasn't kept up with the rising cost of living in Florida.

Since 2012, the cost-of-living escalator has boosted Florida's minimum wage by 58 cents, or about 7.5 percent. During that same period, the median house price in Florida has increased by 60 percent.

So it's hard to make an argument that today's low-wage workers are better off, or even remotely equal, to where they were six years ago.

On the flip side, there are potential dangers to a minimum wage raised too high, too quickly. A University of Washington study found that Seattle's $15 minimum wage may have had an adverse effect on some workers because it led to their weekly hours being cut. A Harvard Business School study of San Francisco's $15 wage suggests it may have led to a higher rate of closure for restaurants.

When you consider the cost of living in those cities was already higher than anywhere in Florida, it's not unreasonable to assume a $15 minimum wage could have unintended consequences on the state's service industry and elderly care network.

"There has to be a different conversation in Florida,'' said Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, a fiscally conservative D.C. think tank.

"It can't be, 'Can you believe the minimum wage is only $8.25?' The conversation has to include the victims of a $15 wage, the seniors who won't be able to afford to stay there (due to rising costs), the workers who could lose hours or jobs and the businesses that could shut down.''

The institute surveyed more than 300 Florida businesses last summer, and said nearly 70 percent suggested they would be forced to react (laying off employees, raising prices, etc.) to a $15 minimum wage. That figure dropped to about half the businesses at $11, and about one-third for a $10 minimum wage.

The point is there is a lot of ground to cover between $8.25 and $15, and it's ridiculous that our legislators have neither the courage nor the foresight to begin exploring that divide.