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Backpedaling on minimum wage

A Times Editorial
Published March 7, 2005

Last November, voters in Florida passed a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage by $1, to $6.15 per hour, and indexing it to inflation. Though only 3.1 percent of Florida's work force makes less than $6.15 per hour and would be directly impacted by raising the floor, Amendment 5 passed with more than 70 percent support. That suggests voters see raising a wage that hadn't been adjusted since 1997 as a matter of basic fairness.

Why then is the Legislature entertaining proposals that might weaken the new amendment and make it difficult to enforce? Could it be that some of the state's leading lawmakers are more interested in protecting business interests than in looking out for low-wage workers?

The House Judiciary Committee recently passed a bill offered by committee Chairman David Simmons, R-Longwood, that would implement the amendment in a way that is tilted toward industry. While there have been some fixes from Simmons' original proposal, including the addition of employee protection against retaliation and the provision of attorney fees (both of which are required by the constitutional amendment), the general intent of the bill is still to shield employers from being sued for noncompliance and, if they are sued, to limit employee recovery.

The measure would give employees the ability to file a civil lawsuit if their employer refuses to pay the new minimum wage, but their monetary relief would be limited to the actual amount of unpaid wages and liquidated damages equal to that amount. The proposal specifically bars recovery for pain and suffering or punitive damages, even though the amendment provides for relief "as may be appropriate to remedy the violation." Might not punitive damages be in order if an employer repeatedly and knowingly cheats his employees out of their fair wages?

The measure also provides a "good-faith" exception that could shield an employer of all damage awards if a judge finds the employer believed he was complying with the law. And perhaps most concerning is a provision designed to make class action suits virtually impossible to bring. The amendment specifically intended to allow for class action suits as there may be situations where large numbers of low-wage workers are underpaid on a sys-Why is the Legislature entertaining proposals that might weaken the new amendment? Could it be that some leading lawmakers are more interested in protecting business interests than in looking out for low-wage workers?

temic basis. But the committee disregarded the intent of the amendment, caring instead to protect exploitive employers.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the only member to vote against the bill, said the committee "did an injustice to the amendment.

"(My colleagues) say they want to do the will of the people, but every time the people say what they want, we find a way to ignore or emasculate it."

The people passed Amendment 5 to provide some wage relief to the dishwashers, hotel maids and retail clerks of our state, yet lawmakers seem to be intent on making it difficult for them to assert their new rights. Before this bill is finally passed, it needs some major overhauling and a completely different point of view.

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 06:09:37]

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