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Push is on for $6.15 state minimum wage

ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published August 6, 2003

So maybe it isn't the perfect moment to ask for a raise in today's political climate and stunted economy. But that's not stopping a new Florida coalition from launching a drive to establish the state's first-ever minimum wage, one pegged at $6.15 an hour. That's $1 more than the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

Setting a $6.15 wage floor in Florida is the idea of an activist group called Acorn and other community and church groups across the state. Together, the new coalition dubbed Floridians For All plans to get signatures on petitions of at least 488,722 Florida voters. That's the number of names required to permit the minimum wage measure to appear as an amendment on the November 2004 ballot.

The coalition is expected to announce its minimum wage campaign on Friday. Closer to Labor Day, it plans to unveil more members of its coalition and details of its statewide campaign.

If the coalition's measure is passed by voters next year, the minimum wage would start at $6.15 per hour six months after enactment. Further automatic increases would be tied to the annual rate of inflation.

Good luck. Two months ago, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill preventing local governments from making local businesses pay minimum wages higher than those set by the federal government. That law presumably wouldn't stop voters from establishing a statewide minimum wage that tops the federal minimum. But it certainly seems to signal where Florida's governor stands on higher mandatory pay.

Minimum wage is a longstanding political hot potato. Supporters argue that raising the minimum wage helps families, reduces employee turnover and even spurs the economy because low-paid workers tend to spend, rather than save, most of their wage gains on goods and services.

Critics say raising the minimum wage raises costs for businesses, forcing them to hire fewer workers and delay new spending. That's especially true in slower economic times and during higher unemployment, when companies find it harder to pass on extra expenses through higher prices.

No matter. The coalition that includes Acorn - short for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - says it won't sit around waiting for more favorable conditions that may never arrive. About 300,000 Floridians work for minimum wage.

"Yes, it's a tough economic climate," says Josh Myles, Acorn's state political coordinator, who operates out of St. Petersburg. "But we're not willing to wait. It's been six years since the feds raised the minimum wage."

Earning an extra buck an hour may not sound like much. Workers who are now paid the federal minimum $5.15 an hour earn $10,712 a year if they toil 40 hours a week for 52 weeks. Boosting their pay to $6.15 an hour would give them all of $12,792 a year for the same 40-hour, 52-week work year.

Either way, that wage earner remains well below the annual income of $15,260 that the federal government now considers the "poverty line" for a family of three. But look at the additional $1 this way: getting $6.15 rather than $5.15 an hour amounts to nearly a 20 percent raise. That sounds pretty good these days when the typical pay raise is closer to 3.5 percent.

"Minimum wage" varies greatly across the country.

More than two dozen states have minimum wages that match the federal standard of $5.15 an hour. About a dozen other states have a minimum wage above the federal level, ranging from Alaska at $7.15 and California at $6.75 an hour to Rhode Island, where the $6.15 minimum rises to $6.75 in January.

Florida and six other states - Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina - have no minimum wage laws, so the federal rate prevails.

Acorn has tried in the past to win hikes in minimum wages, but not in Florida and not on a statewide basis. Acorn's campaign to increase the minimum wage in New Orleans by $1 an hour, from $5.15 to $6.15, was approved in a city resolution. But it was later knocked down by a state supreme court ruling. In high-cost San Francisco, Acorn is involved in efforts to raise that city's minimum wage.

Myles, a young and dedicated organizer, says Acorn is committed to change in Florida. The Chicago-based activist group sees Florida as a high-population state with few organizations committed to sticking up for the little guy. Acorn also is coming off a successful national and state campaign against Household Finance and other consumer finance companies that it targeted for engaging in predatory lending practices against lower-income borrowers.

Acorn and its coalition partners may even find some unlikely supporters in Florida.

Two months ago, central Florida's feisty frozen-foods magnate, Jeno F. Paulucci, bought a full-page ad in the Washington Times newspaper and urged President Bush and Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to at least $7 an hour. He criticized the recent federal tax cuts and the excessive pay of corporate executives, and encouraged the president and lawmakers to "pay more attention to the minimum wage earner, if he or she is lucky enough to even have a job."

The 85-year-old creator of Michelina's and Budget Gourmet frozen entrees and such brands as Chun King and Jeno's Pizza Rolls, rose from poverty to become a multimillionaire businessman. Last year, he was selected as the top entrepreneur in the country in a competition sponsored by Ernst & Young.

Paulucci's ad concluded: "Let's share ... or the division between the extreme left and the extreme right will come to really haunt us."

The federal government raised the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour in 1997 from $4.75 in 1996. The wage was set at $4.25 in 1991, $3.80 in 1990, $3.35 in 1981, $3.10 in 1980, $2.90 in 1979, and $2.65 in 1978. The first federal minimum wage was set under the Fair Labor Standards Act in October of 1938 at 25 cents an hour.

In Washington, Senate Democrats last month argued a minimum wage increase was long overdue for millions of workers and proposed raising the hourly wage floor from $5.15 to $6.65 in two annual steps. Senate Republicans blocked the measure.

Is convincing Florida voters to embrace a statewide minimum wage, one higher than the current federal wage, a long shot? Perhaps.

But Floridians are not always predictable at the polls. Don't forget, Florida voters last year narrowly approved a statewide amendment to reduce public school class sizes, even though Gov. Bush campaigned vigorously against it as too expensive.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

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