Florida’s minimum wage is at the heart of the Senate race in St. Pete’s District 24

Democrat Eunic Ortiz is running against Republican Nick DiCeglie for Jeff Brandes, who is term-limited.

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click to enlarge Florida’s minimum wage is at the heart of the Senate race in St. Pete’s District 24

Florida’s “maverick” Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who’s sought to undercut Florida’s minimum wage requirement after the passage of Florida’s Amendment 2 last year, is finishing up his second and final term in the State Senate representing District 24, which covers mid-Pinellas County and is up for election in 2022.

Brandes’ term in the State Senate ends next November. And due to term limits, he’s unable to seek re-election.

As it is, there are currently two candidates in the running to replace him next year: Democrat Eunic Ortiz and Republican Nick DiCeglie. Like Brandes, both have strong but opposing positions on a $15 minimum wage in Florida—clear from their public statements, as well as their campaign finance activity. (A third candidate, Republican Timothy Lewis has also filed for the D24 Senate Race, but has raised just north of $100 since filing.)

Running to replace the maverick

Eunic Ortiz, the Democrat running for Brandes’ seat, is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida and a former Communications Director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about 2 million workers in healthcare, the public sector, and property services—including 55,000 active and retired Floridians.

The SEIU also principally funds the national Fight for $15 campaign, first launched in 2012 by fast food workers in New York City—and still led today by workers fighting for a federal $15 minimum wage and the right of all workers to unionize.

Ortiz worked on Florida’s Amendment 2 campaign for a $15 minimum wage last year with SEIU Florida, who’ve endorsed her campaign for state Senate.

With roots in Pinellas County, and a professional background in education, government communications, and organized labor, Ortiz seeks to advocate for everyday working Floridians in Tallahassee, with a platform focused on affordable housing, better funding for public education, environmental protection, and naturally, more well-paying jobs for working Floridians.

Nick DiCeglie, a sitting Republican State Representative in District 66, has also filed for the State Senate District 24 seat. DiCeglie is a businessman by trade, owner of the garbage collection service Solar Sanitation. He’s also chairman of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and former chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party.

In stark contrast to Ortiz, DiCeglie’s running on an explicitly right-wing platform, concerned with building Florida’s conservative principles, promoting the interests of business owners, fighting abortion rights and “radical gender policy” in education, and fighting fraud at the ballot box (gotta find it first, buddy).

Unsurprisingly, DiCeglie has been endorsed by oBrandes, who he’d succeed in office if elected. And it makes sense. They’re both Republicans in a battleground purple district.

Another reason it makes sense—both legislators have also received donor dollars from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), one of the fiercest opponents of Florida’s $15 minimum wage amendment last year and a state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association, which has lobbied hard against a U.S. federal $15 minimum wage.

Following the money 

Brandes, who appears adamant on watering down Florida’s implementation of a $15 minimum wage—and thus, undercut the will of Florida voters—before leaving office, is well acquainted with the FLRA. Or, at least his campaign fund is.

During his 2018 re-election campaign for Senate, Brandes received a total of $6,000 from the FRLA PAC, through donations made to his campaign fund and his PAC, Liberty Florida

And, despite his ability to work with some Florida Democrats on criminal justice reform bills, Brandes—who was the only Republican to vote against Florida’s highly controversial anti-protest legislation earlier this year—has also received over $25,000 from the GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors. 

DiCeglie, Brandes’ preferred successor, has also received some telling campaign contributions. Since filing for the District 24 Senate seat in March, DiCeglie has received $1,000 from the FRLA, which poured thousands into the statewide “Amendment 2 Hurts You” campaign last year.

DiCeglie’s political action committee, the Economic Freedom Committee, also details sizable contributions from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Florida—both of which opposed Florida’s Amendment 2. (Brandes has also been a recipient of donations from both.)

Earlier this year, DiCeglie took to social media to express his displeasure with a $15 minimum wage. “The $15 minimum wage has been proven to hurt the economy, increase unemployment, and destroy small businesses,” DiCeglie wrote in a social media post, commenting on a Fox News article that, among other things, incorrectly stated that California’s state minimum wage is already $15 an hour (it’s on track to reach $15 for most minimum wage workers by January 2022, with the exception of select municipalities that have already reached a $15 wage floor). 

“We need to find effective solutions to mitigate the impact this wage increase will have on our state. Floridians want to work, and no-one deserves to be priced out of the economy,” DiCeglie said.

As it is, the U.S. federal minimum wage currently rests at $7.25 an hour, and Florida’s isn’t set to reach $15 until Sept. 30, 2026. Along with over 30 U.S. cities and counties—largely based in California—the District of Columbia (D.C.) is currently the sole U.S. territory to have a $15 minimum wage in place. 

Although a Congressional Budgets Office (CBO) analysis, published in February, estimated that a U.S. federal $15 minimum wage could kill about 1.4 million U.S. jobs, other reports from the Economic Policy Institute and UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, have come up with different findings.

For instance, a February analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that raising the U.S. wage floor to $15 an hour by 2025 would raise wages for some 27 million U.S. workers, reduce poverty, and curb annual governmental expenditures on public assistance programs like SNAP.  The EPI has also testified in Congress that the majority of economic research shows minimum wage increases “have raised the pay of the low-wage workforce without causing meaningful job loss.” 

In Florida, an estimated 2.5 million working Floridians will see their wages rise by 2026 as Florida’s wage floor reaches $15 an hour minimum. According to the Florida Policy Institute, over one million families will be lifted out of poverty. 

click to enlarge Florida’s minimum wage is at the heart of the Senate race in St. Pete’s District 24

While some struggle to make ends meet, others see millions

After a year where low-wage workers bore the greatest brunt of unemployment, and Tampa Bay rent prices have soared, it’s pretty rich of some Republicans to say that offering something closer to a living wage for Florida’s lowest paid workers is a move worth challenging.

It’s especially cutting coming from sitting Senator Brandes, who disclosed a net worth of $19.3 million in 2020, and State Rep. DiCeglie who’s worth about $4.5 million, according to financial disclosure documents filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics

Democrat Eunic Ortiz, also running for Brandes’ Senate seat, hasn’t held public office, and thus hasn’t been required to submit financial disclosure documents. 

But this doesn’t mean she lacks experience working in government. After graduating from UF in 2008, Ortiz moved to New York, where she worked in communications for the New York City Council. It was there in New York that Ortiz began working for the SEIU. In 2017, Ortiz returned to Florida to continue her work with the union in the Sunshine state.

Naturally, Ortiz fully supports a $15 minimum wage, and has rebuked Brandes’ move to water it down with his own resolution. “[This] is not the first time Senator @JeffreyBrandes tries to make the min wage in FL lower than federal law. No one should work 40 hours a week & live in poverty,” Ortiz wrote after news broke of Brandes’ decision to refile his minimum wage bill in September.

Like DiCeglie, Ortiz’s position on a $15 minimum wage is reflected in her campaign finance. Records show she’s received donations from three different SEIU-affiliated PACs, totaling $3,000—unsurprising, considering her SEIU Florida endorsement. In addition, she’s also received, mostly smaller donations, from several labor and political organizers throughout the state.

Broadly speaking, most of Ortiz’s donations are in the $24-$100 range. Since filing to run, her campaign’s raised nearly $52,000 from 405 contributions. Her opponent, Republican candidate DiCeglie, has raised $129,562 from half as many contributions (plus over $200,000 through his PAC since filing to run for Senate in March).

Latest attempt to undercut Florida’s minimum wage requirement

Just last month, Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes refiled a bill, SJR 382, in the state legislature that would allow employers in Florida to exempt workers from the state minimum wage, which now rests at $10 an hour for non-tipped employees, and is on track to reach $15 an hour by 2026 as a result of a ballot measure passed by Florida voters last year.

Brandes filed a bill similar to this last session, with some differences. Last session’s bill specified certain types of workers—that is, people in prison, people with felony convictions, minors, and other “hard to hire” employees—that he’d see excluded from the state minimum wage requirement. Specifying, at the very least, which workers could see their labor legally devalued by Florida employers.

The latest bill, filed literally the day before Florida’s scheduled minimum wage increase last month, is more vague. It doesn’t specify which workers could be paid less than minimum wage. Rather, it offers employers the option of providing any employee with a “training wage” for up to six months. Per Florida Politics, this training wage would be based on either a federal temporary training wage —at $4.25 per hour for people under 20 or 75% of the minimum wage — or what’s recommended by a state-commissioned study that would be conducted once every three years. 

“We think it’s a great tool that should be available to the Legislature if necessary,” Brandes told Florida Politics. “It may not be needed today, but we want to have the option of having it available in the future. And it’s all voluntary — voluntary for the employer to offer it and voluntary for the employee to accept it.”

The bill filed by Brandes is a joint resolution. This means, like Florida’s minimum wage amendment last year, it would need to be put on statewide ballot and be approved by at least 60% of Florida voters to go into effect.

Looking ahead

As it is, sitting Sen. Brandes will be out of the District 24 State Senate seat next year, and Florida’s still on its way to reaching a $15 minimum wage. Evidently, this wage increase is still being challenged, as evidenced not only by Sen. Brandes’ latest “training wage” bill, but also by the corporations and lobbyists who have donated to the campaign of his endorsed successor.

Currently, Ortiz and DiCeglie are the only two candidates in the running for the open District 24 in Pinellas County. The 2022 Primary Election will take place on Aug. 23, 2022, and the General on Nov. 8, 2022.

click to enlarge Florida’s minimum wage is at the heart of the Senate race in St. Pete’s District 24

UPDATED 10/18/21 9:36 a.m. Updated to show a third candidate, Republican Timothy Lewis has also filed for the D24 Senate Race, but has raised just north of $100 since filing.

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About The Author

McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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