You can take it to the bank: A constitutional amendment for a $15-an-hour minimum wage will be on the 2020 ballot in Florida. As John Morgan said Tuesday in his announcement, “One good thing is, I understand how to do this."
Boy, does he ever.
Florida's most prominent personal injury attorney made a push for medical marijuana on the 2014 ballot, the measure failed by a whisker. He tried again in 2016, much the wiser, spending $6.5 million of his own money. Even needing a 60 percent vote to make it happen, he got a whopping 71.3 percent.
When it comes to turning the world on its ear, the man is magic.
But, just because Morgan can get the $15-an-hour minimum-wage vote on the ballot doesn't mean we should follow him like lemmings off a cliff.
A statewide telephone survey of Florida businesses, conducted in July and August 2017 by research firm CorCom Inc, concluded a $15-an-hour minimum wage would be an economic disaster for this state. Such an increase would cripple many of the state's small businesses.
Here's what the survey discovered:
- "Alarmingly, nearly one-third --30 percent -- (of businesses surveyed) say they may be forced to go out of business, with 18 percent very likely to close. They do not think they could absorb the increase or pass it along to their customers.
- "Many business owners and managers anticipate that increases will also hurt workers. Half or more will see operations scaled back and expect to cut employee hours (56 percent). About as many say they will have staff layoffs (50 percent). About one-third will likely look for technological alternatives (automation) to replace workers (33 percent) or hire more experienced workers (33 percent).
- "Consumers will feel the pinch too. Most businesses will likely increase prices (59 percent), especially those with tipped employees (75 percent), ones who operate in the hospitality industry (73 percent) or ones that are part of a franchise (64 percent).
- "The argument that it will be easier on businesses if the increases are phased in over time does not seem to hold up. Nearly half (49 percent) say they will be forced to make changes (price increases, layoffs, etc.) once the rates reach $11. When the rate reaches $15, two-thirds (68 percent) expect that they will be forced to respond."
Morgan pooh-poohs all this.
"Our belief is that the single greatest issue facing America and Florida today is a living wage," he explained at his Tuesday press conference. "That people are working harder and harder and getting further and further behind. That the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is sinking into the abyss. And that is where the desperation you see in America comes from."
On the other hand, what does Florida have to be ashamed of? In 2004 voters passed a constitutional amendment linking its minimum wage to the rate of inflation. It made Florida something of a regional outlier. The state's wage floor, $8.46 an hour, is actually at least a dollar higher than any of its immediate neighbors, and $1.21 higher than the national minimum rate of $7.25 an hour.
In recent years there's been little appetite in the Legislature to make Florida even more of an outlier. During the 2016 session, two bills to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour (HB 109 and SB 6) died in committee. Which is no doubt why Morgan is taking the route he's most familiar with, the constitutional amendment.
The approximately 25,000 unemployed young adults in Florida who aren't enrolled in school and don't have a high school diploma have an unemployment rate averaging 22 percent, according to Forbes magazine. That's more than five times the current 3.3 percent unemployment rate.
"This erosion of workplace opportunities isn't a 'business' problem, it's a societal problem," said Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) in Washington, D.C. "Starter jobs lead to higher pay and better benefits later in life, and they reduce the risk that young people will embrace illegal means of employment. If these jobs don't exist, what happens to the 25,000 less-educated young Floridians who'd like to work but can't find it? The answer to that question should be foremost on voters minds should they see a $15 minimum wage on the ballot in 2020."
The District of Columbia has the highest minimum wage at $13.25, while California and Massachusetts are at $12. Those two states, D.C. and New York, are scheduled to have $15 minimum wages -- D.C. by next year, California by 2022, Massachusetts by 2023. Some cities such as Seattle have their own minimum wages that are higher than their state's. And New York -- well, the phasing-in is happening now.
Employers in New York with 10 or fewer workers have until Dec. 31, 2019 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from the present $12. NYC restaurateur Sebastien Muller asks, “Do you think it's a coincidence that stores are eliminating cashiers and automating checkout? Airport restaurants are moving to electronic service, McDonald’s will figure out more ways to automate.”
Certainly California is no example for Florida to follow. Rather, it’s a warning of the dark future to come should the state embrace Morgan's ballot initiative. Certainly, as progressive as the Golden State is, it's trying to phase in the $15 minimum wage carefully, but it allowed cities to go to $15 immediately if that's what their voters decided. San Francisco was the first California city to make the $15 minimum-wage law, and it has gone badly, especially in the restaurant business. The Bay Area experienced so many restaurant closures that one food industry writer called it a “death march.”
A recent report from economists David McPherson (Trinity University) and Bill Even (Miami University) estimated that California will lose 400,000 jobs by the time $15 minimum wage is fully phased in.
Morgan's amendment would also be phased in. It would increase the minimum wage to $10 the first year, then by a dollar each year until it reaches $15.
If the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the hospitality industry, virtually every small-business organization in the state claims a $15 minimum wage will kill jobs and businesses and raise prices on customers, shouldn't we at least listen?
“Rather than adding another new mandate on local businesses, we should come together to ensure there’s a universal path to prosperity through job training that creates $50,000 careers for the 1.7 percent of Floridians earning a minimum wage full time,” Florida Chamber spokeswoman Edie Ousley told AP.
We have a long time before Voting Day 2020. The Supreme Court has to OK the ballot language and Morgan needs more signatures. It's enough time for Floridians to absorb the arguments and make a reasoned decision before they actually vote.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith