Just a few months after Floridians voted to raise the state’s minimum wage, Florida lawmakers are considering a proposal that would exempt more than 2 million workers from it.
Introduced by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the proposal, if passed this upcoming legislative session, would place an amendment on the 2022 ballot authorizing lawmakers to create a lower “training wage” for workers who have served time for felonies, who are under 21 and others considered “hard-to-hire.”
Brandes, who over the years has sponsored several bills to reform the prison system, said the resolution is intended to mitigate the job losses that some groups expect to come from Amendment 2.
The amendment, which passed with 60% of the vote, gradually raises the minimum wage by $1 a year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2026. Right now the state minimum wage is set at $8.56 and will increase to $10 in September.
“I believe there are going to be many winners as the state minimum wage rises, but there’s also going to be people who are disadvantaged,” Brandes said, citing a study from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated Amendment 2 would boost wages for 17 million workers but also cost jobs for about 1.3 million.
Another study from Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit run by a board of directors that includes lobbyists for Walmart and Universal Orlando and that encouraged residents to vote down Amendment 2, claimed that the increase would discourage companies from coming to Florida and force employers to raise prices and eliminate jobs to afford paying higher wages.
However, other analysts have said that those concerns are largely unfounded. And in the run-up to the November 2020 election, more than 160 Florida business owners formed a coalition to support the amendment.
Brandes’ primary focus is on teens lacking job experience and former inmates who have completed their sentences, but the resolution doesn’t specify who would fall under hard-to-hire. One of his suggestions was groups of people who are unemployed at rates three times that of the state average, which is currently 6.1% because of the pandemic.
He argued that allowing employers to pay those people a lower wage would help them get hired. Prison reformation advocates had previously estimated there are about 1.4 million ex-felons in Florida, and the 2010 Census reported 524,000 residents between just the ages of 18 and 19.
“Is it better to be unemployed with a $15 minimum wage or employed at a $10 minimum wage?” he said.
Already, Brandes’ proposal has the backing of at least one business lobbying group that opposed the original wage amendment.
David Hart, an executive vice president for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose donors include Walt Disney World, Publix and Darden Restaurants, said in a statement, “while we respect that the voters of Florida have recently spoken on this issue, Sen. Brandes has rightly identified two groups … who are likely to be highly and adversely impacted.”
‘A second class of worker’
Training wages are fairly common in the United States, but most policies only apply to minors and are designed to last a few months while an employee is new on the job. New Jersey, for instance, just passed a law allowing employers to pay workers without job experience 90% of the minimum wage for the first 120 hours of work, so long as they make a “good faith effort” to hire them afterward. In Connecticut, those under 18 can be paid 85% of the state minimum for the first 90 days. Some states allow smaller employers to pay less than larger businesses.
But no states currently have a lower wage for ex-felons. And although Brandes said he intends for the training wage to be temporary, the resolution as it’s written now doesn’t include a time limit. Brandes said he plans to refine the proposal’s language so it’s clearer.
Still, advocates who endorsed Amendment 2 fear that voters will be asked to vote on a policy that won’t be ironed out until after it passes and without clarity on who will be considered hard-to-hire. Florida groups representing disabled workers are worried they, too, could be lumped in.
“What’s being proposed is much broader, more expansive and more dangerous than any other training wage that exists in any other state. It really does create a second class of worker that can be treated differently than everyone else,” said David Cooper, a senior analyst with the Economic Policy Institute. “The broad category of ‘hard-to-hire workers’ is just so ambiguous, it’s just ripe for abuse and exploitation.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration wants to repeal similar exemptions to the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25. President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package includes the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and do away with exemptions for teenagers and employees with disabilities.
For youths 20 years old or younger, for example, employers can pay them $4.25 for the first 90 days, but are prohibited from getting rid of older employees to save money with younger labor. Cooper said employers rarely opt to pay the lower wage anyway because it requires approval from the Department of Labor.
‘Another layer’ of discrimination
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, director of work quality for the National Employment Law Center, said setting lower minimum wages for minors assumes that everyone under 21 is from the same socioeconomic background and ignores that many teenagers help support their low-income families or have taken on expensive student loans.
Gebreselassie went as far as calling Brandes’ proposal racist, arguing that including ex-felons in it directly targets Black people who are disproportionately imprisoned.
“It’s been well documented how people of color, specifically Black and brown folks, are disproportionately impacted by over-incarceration,” agreed Tachana Joseph-Marc, a Florida Policy Institute analyst focused on criminal justice issues. “For example, here in Florida, Black people constitute roughly 17% of the state population; however, their representation as of 2018 was 47% in our prisons. This is just going to be another layer of that.”
Joseph-Marc also pointed to a recent study by FPI estimating that of the 2.5 million part-time and full-time workers who would see their pay go up under Amendment 2, women and people of color stand to benefit the most. FPI projected that 36% percent of Black workers, 34% of Hispanic and 33% of working women would see pay increases.
“If the intent is to actually make it easier for some of those hard-to-hire groups to have better opportunities at entering and actually staying in the workforce, there are other ways to do that,” said Joseph-Marc. She suggested tax credits for employers who hire ex-felons and eliminating barriers for ex-felons to become barbers and other positions that require special licenses.
Although Brandes’ proposal would also require approval from voters, opponents likened it to the bill lawmakers passed after Floridians approved Amendment 4 in 2018, which restored voting rights to former felons. Tampa Republican Rep. Jamie Grant and Brandes pushed through a law that required ex-felons to pay outstanding court fees, fines and restitution before they could register to vote, ultimately preventing hundreds of thousands of them from voting in the 2020 presidential election.
John Morgan, founder of the Morgan & Morgan law firm, largely bankrolled the Amendment 2 campaign with $6 million of his own money, and has vowed to sue the state if Brandes’ resolution advances. Morgan successfully sued the state after lawmakers tried to ban smoking medical marijuana, which a county judge ruled went against the amendment voters had approved in 2016 legalizing it.
“Workers in Florida have been demanding a $15 minimum wage for not just the past election cycle, they’ve been asking for this for the last six or seven years. It has taken a tremendous coalition of worker leaders, community groups and even businesses, big and small businesses, to get this passed,” said Allynn Umel, one of the organizing directors for the national Fight for $15 campaign. “The coalition is coming together once again and will do whatever it takes to make sure that this doesn’t get watered down.
“I anticipate this will be a tremendous fight.”