As Florida threw its support behind President Donald Trump this week, voters in the state also approved a hike to the minimum wage, a measure supported by unions and strongly opposed by business.
More than 6.3 million of Florida’s 11 million voters approved a hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, a victory for workers made possible because the question was put directly to voters and not through the legislature, experts said.
Florida’s Republican-led legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts to increase the minimum wage, and an effort to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour failed in 2019 in the Republican-controlled United States Senate.
“The primary obstacle to a higher minimum wage throughout the country is Republican control of legislatures,” said David Cooper, senior economic analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank.
“Any time this question is put before voters, they overwhelming say they want a higher minimum wage,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The wage increase proposal found support in the Miami area, which has a large Hispanic and Cuban-American population who work in the service industry, said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University.
“Miami has a very, very low median income,” he said. “That large service sector economy wants better wages, even though it contradicts the Republican platform.”
About 51% of Florida voters backed the Republican Trump, and about 48% backed the Democrat, former Vice President Joe Biden. Polling in Florida had shown Mr. Biden with a slight edge.
The increase will mean a raise for some 2.5 million workers in Florida, where many low-wage jobs are in its $90 billion a year tourism industry, said groups that backed the measure like the Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit, and the Service Employees International Union.
‘Primary breadwinners’ will benefit
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses and corporations, and the state restaurant and hotel association fought the measure, saying it would cripple the economy.
“Studies show this amendment will cause Florida to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, drive up inflation, and cost Florida more than $700 million in lost revenue,” the Chamber said in an emailed statement.
But the cost of living, especially in population centers like Orlando and South Florida, long ago exceeded minimum wage earners’ ability to keep up, Mr. Cooper said.
Nine out of 10 workers who will benefit are adults, a quarter of them have children, and more than half are full-time workers, Mr. Cooper said.
“These are folks who are primary breadwinners for their families,” he said.
About half of Florida’s full-time workers earn less than $15 an hour, and the measure could lift about four million families out of poverty, supporters said.
However, those figures were gathered prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Florida’s tourism industry hard.
The state’s minimum wage has been $8.56 per hour since 2020, but some restaurant workers are paid as little as $2.13 an hour under laws that assume they will make up the balance in tips.
The Walt Disney Co, which runs Disneyworld in Florida, and Darden, which owns restaurant chains like Olive Garden, lobbied for years against a minimum wage hike.
But Disney in 2018 agreed to raise the minimum wage for its 38,000 unionized park workers to $15 an hour, while Amazon and other companies expanding in the state agreed to similar steps.
“No way to keep up”
“Every month my expenses were bigger than my income, I cannot tell you the burden of a life like that,” said Ketty Touissant Rene, who until mid-March was a hotel steward at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach.
“The rent, gasoline, groceries, healthcare, and all of the other expenses, there was just no way to keep up no matter how much I worked.”
The consequences of a minimum wage hike are hotly debated.
A 2019 study by the federal Congressional Budget Office said a national minimum wage increase to $15 an hour would boost the pay of about 17 million workers but could lead to the loss of 1.3 million jobs.
But Mr. Cooper said that figure was an exaggeration.
“The research by and large shows that higher minimum wages have little to no impact on jobs,” he said. “If the sky were going to fall, we would’ve seen it by now.”
Some studies say $15 is not enough. One study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found workers in Florida needed to earn $20.68 an hour to rent a two-bedroom home at market rate without spending more than 30% of their income.
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.