Miami, FL—As another disappointing legislative session ends in Tallahassee, the priorities of Florida’s working families have once again been ignored. Whether that will prove to be a mistake for many legislators is the question to be tested in elections across the state this year.
SEIU Florida is throwing its 55,000-member statewide organization behind a broad push to affect the 2016 elections in Florida, from President to local races. Banking on a growing populist discontent with the status quo, SEIU and its wide network of community allies will work to educate voters on one of the biggest issues facing working families across the nation – a minimum wage that has not kept up with the cost of living.
“Millions of Floridians struggle every day to provide for their families on wages that are not realistic for today’s economy,” said SEIU Florida President Monica Russo. “Hard-working people are forced to make nearly impossible choices to barely scrape by while big business passes the cost of supporting their low-wage employees onto taxpayers. The political leadership controlling the debate in Tallahassee is tone deaf and morally bankrupt in refusing to see or even hear them.”
In the run-up to session, SEIU Florida pledged to support only those politicians who would champion a working people’s agenda, including a $15 minimum wage. A bill proposing raising the minimum wage was filed by state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and state Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando.
SEIU Florida exclusively endorsed and made contributions to those who agreed to both support the bill and to walk a week in the shoes of a minimum wage worker to highlight the daily struggle of some four million Floridians.
Thirty-two elected officials and candidates around the state agreed to live on poverty wages for five days as part of the "Minimum Wage Challenge", as did dozens of community leaders and members. Each documented the daily humiliations of the experience on social media.
Without exception, those taking the challenge were stunned by their own inability to balance the hard choices real low-income workers are forced to make each day between basics such as groceries, medicine and transportation. Most of them blew their meager budget before the five days were up.
In February, SEIU Florida released a report exposing the $11.4 billion taxpayers are unwittingly paying to subsidize low wage jobs, as documented by FSU economics professor Patrick L. Mason.
“The High Public Cost of Low Wage Employment in Florida” showed how Florida corporations rake in more profits by paying wages so low that employees must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs like food stamps and public housing.
More than a hundred workers also visited the Capitol from different parts of the state throughout the session, challenging legislators to walk in their shoes – and to debate the bill. The GOP-controlled House and Senate were not receptive, refusing to even hear the bill.
Patricia Walker, a homecare worker from Tampa, said she loves her job, but is frustrated by wages that don’t cover her bills. “I give my clients the love and care they need every day, but I still go home and don’t know how I’m going to be able to take care of my family,” said Walker. “I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t even give us a proper hearing. It’s like we don’t exist.”
While Florida’s politicians have thus far sidestepped the issue, the fight for $15 is taking off across the country. Fourteen cities, counties and states approved a $15 minimum wage in 2015 and dozens more ballot or legislative proposals were introduced around the country this year. The issue is also gaining traction in the presidential election, a trend any politician targeting Florida voters would be foolish to ignore.