FL’s minimum wage boost faces a struggle; advocates warn of low-paid workers getting ripped off

Credit: AFL-CIO

Florida workers are set to get a boost in the minimum wage in September to $10 per hour — part of the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2020 that increases the state’s minimum wage incrementally until it reaches $15 per hour in 2026.

But the Florida Legislature is already looking to tinker with the amendment.

And advocacy groups for higher wages are already concerned about employers who violate the law by paying some employees below the minimum wage. Essentially, those low-wage workers are getting ripped off.

Currently, Florida’s minimum wage is $8.65 per hour.

A joint report released last week by the Florida Policy Institute and New Jersey-based Rutgers University’s Center for Innovation in Worker Organization underscored a trend among low wage workers in certain industries being paid below the minimum wage, also known as wage theft.

Those groups define wage theft as “employers failing to pay workers the minimum wage” though the report focuses solely on minimum wage violations related to low-paid workers.

The report noted that “victims of wage theft lose 18 percent of the minimum wage to which they are entitled, on average, or $1.32 per hour.”

A state Department of Labor?

Currently, the state has no way to ensure employers are paying workers the minimum wage, but victims of wage theft can file a complaint through the Attorney General’s Office, said Alexis Davis, policy analyst at Florida Policy Institute.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. Credit: Official photo, office of Attorney General

But that isn’t enough to protect low-wage workers, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office hasn’t put much attention on wage violations, Davis told the Florida Phoenix.

“The minimum wage has been largely unenforced for at least a decade,” the joint report stated.

Advocacy groups such as the FPI want to crack down on wage theft by pushing for legislation to establish a state Department of Labor to ensure employers are paying workers the minimum wage.

“Administrative enforcement is basically a way of investigating and remedying complaints and violations without the complexity costs or time of a lawsuit. Right now, the only option is to go through the attorney general. And one problem is many people don’t even realize that’s an option for them to do; there’s a hotline that’s not advertised,” said Davis, who is one of the authors of the report.

Moody responded to a public records request from the FPI and found that the office received only 29 complaints about wage theft from 2016 to 2019, according to the report.

Moody hasn’t responded to a request for comment from the Phoenix.

“That so few Floridians filed complaints is a dramatic indication of the system’s failure. If working Floridians do not know what their rights are or how to seek redress if their rights are violated, Florida’s Constitution and the will of the people can never fully be realized,” the report said.

Industries with highest wage theft rates

The report highlights trends in wage theft rates from 2005 to 2019, showing workers ripped off in Florida’s top industries such as agriculture, service, and administrative jobs.

For instance, there were 12,999 underpaid workers in personal service and laundry jobs such as cosmetologists, hairstylists, and laundromat employees, from 2005 to 2019.

In that same period, farm workers had a minimum wage violation rate of 24 percent and a total of 3,900 workers underpaid.

“Moreover, Floridians in these fields are more likely to work part-time (often involuntarily), and research shows that part-time workers are five times more likely to live in poverty than full-time workers,” the report said.

Other industries in Florida hit hard by wage theft from 2005-2019 include food services, such as waitresses and waiters who heavily rely on tips for payment.

That industry had seen a 22 percent minimum wage violation rate and a total of 59,583 workers who were underpaid, according to the report.

Those tipped workers typically earn a subminimum wage, lower than the minimum wage, plus tips. But many servers and bartenders make generous earnings from tips, totaling more than the minimum wage.

Although most of those workers in restaurants earn more than the minimum wage because of tips, employees who don’t make that are supposed to be paid by their employers wages that are equivalent to the minimum wage, said Daniel Galvin, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

“And if they don’t, it’s illegal,” said Galvin, who is also a fellow at Rutgers’ Center for Innovation in Worker Organization.

Data from the report were based on a survey of low wage workers in various industries, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Those participants were asked about their weekly earnings and hours worked, Galvin added.

Racial disparities in wage theft

Certain groups such as women, Blacks and Latino workers are more likely to experience wage violations compared to white workers, the report found.

For instance, “Black and Latina non-citizen women were 2 and 2.3 times more likely than U.S.-born white women to experience a minimum wage violation, respectively.” And those same groups are overrepresented among low wage workers.

“The vulnerability of these low wage workers is compounded when you add the multiple demographic categories. … I think that is really striking,” Galvin said.

Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are pushing for legislation to prohibit certain people from receiving the minimum wage set up by the constitutional amendment and offer a “training wage” to start off with.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing part of Pinellas County and the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, filed a joint resolution that would allow the Legislature to reduce pay for felons, young individuals, and other “hard to hire” people.

“What it will do is create this subminimum wage,” Tachana Joseph-Marc, policy analyst with FPI, said in a phone interview with the Phoenix. “It is not effective, and it is not the right solution.”

The bill summary states that it would “authorize the Legislature to provide a reduced minimum wage rate for prisoners in the state correctional system, for employees convicted of a felony, for employees under 21 years of age, and for other hard-to-hire employees.”

The voters would have to approve the idea as an amendment to the Florida Constitution.