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Tampa Bay workers demand higher minimum wage 7/23/2015

ST. PETERSBURG — As support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage continued to grow nationally, low-income workers demanding better pay rallied Thursday in St. Petersburg, Orlando and Miami.

A crowd of about 20 workers from the fast food and health care industries met on the steps of St. Petersburg's City Hall chanting, "Power! Miracles! Transformation!" They cheered as speakers shared their struggles about surviving on historically low wages.

"This is a powerful moment for rebuilding the middle class," St. Petersburg library assistant Kimberly Weiss called to the crowd. "Hear our cries for fair wages."

St. Petersburg's demonstration was organized by the Service Employees International Union and the "Fight for $15" campaign, a coalition of worker groups that conducted Thursday's nationwide protests after a series of recent breakthroughs.

The past two days have brought landmark decisions to raise the minimum wage in state and county systems. Los Angeles County voted Tuesday to phase in a program that would increase the minimum wage to $15. A day later, the University of California system became the first public university to move to a $15 hourly wage for its employees. On the East Coast, New York's Wage Board on Wednesday recommended a $15 hourly wage for employees at fast-food chains with 30 locations or more.

Even Congress has taken note. On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers in the House and the Senate introduced a bill that would establish a national $15 minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. In Florida, it is $8.05.

St. Petersburg's demonstrators praised New York's decision and called for Florida to do the same.

"If (New York) Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo can do it, what's stopping Gov. Rick Scott from doing it?" said 26-year-old Tampa community activist Bleu Rainer, the event's first speaker.

Patricia Walker, 54, stood out from the sea of protesters in her bright red "Fight for 15" shirt and a colorful sign reading, "New York Lead the Way: $15 For Fast-Food Workers!"

Walker has been working since she was 9 years old. As a home health care provider, she has to take the bus to each of her clients. For three years, she was homeless. In Walker's experience, minimum wage has not been enough to live on.

"We should not have to scuffle as hard as we do," Walker said.

Kimberly Weiss, 31, thought good grades in high school and her associate degree program would guarantee a bright future. But instead of graduating with no money in her pocket, she left college $10,000 in debt.

She wanted the "American dream" — to get married, buy a house and start a family. But once her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, expenses added up. She was forced to make a "devastating decision."

Weiss did not make enough money to have a child.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said stories like Weiss' are why he supports a higher minimum wage.

Dudley spoke about growing up as one of nine children.

"I worked my way through college, I washed dishes, I waited tables," Dudley said. "I know what hardscrabble is."

Despite recent victories, Dudley said he wasn't optimistic that Florida's state government, dominated by Republicans, would consider a $15 minimum wage.

"It's not likely, but I think you have to start somewhere," Dudley said.

Still, on Thursday, the air was rife with hope as protesters banded together to show their support for one another. Participants posed for pictures while holding their signs. Event organizer Kofi Hunt embraced Weiss as she held back tears.

And Sade Reed, 27, pondered what she would do with that extra $6.95.

"I would not have to decide which bills I can pay this month," she said with a laugh.

Then she paused and smiled to herself.

"And I could spend more time with my daughter."