Tampa Bay is getting a minimum wage boost on Thursday, and it’s about damn time

Florida’s minimum wage will increase to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, and $15 by 2026.

Gail Rodgers at Joe Biden's drive-in rally in Tampa, Florida on Oct. 29, 2020. - Dave Decker
Dave Decker
Gail Rodgers at Joe Biden's drive-in rally in Tampa, Florida on Oct. 29, 2020.

After becoming the first state in the South to get on track toward a $15 minimum wage last year, Florida’s gearing up for its biggest minimum wage increase in over a decade.

Effective Sept. 30, Florida’s minimum wage will rise from its current $8.65 per hour to $10 an hour, or $6.98 plus tips for tipped employees.

This new minimum wage requirement comes directly as a result of Florida’s Amendment 2, a ballot measure that was passed by voters in 2020 with nearly 62% of the vote. The initiative received about 1.1 million votes more than President Joe Biden, who lost in Florida, and 708,000 more votes than former President Donald Trump.

With its passage, Florida’s state minimum wage will also rise by $1 each year after until it reaches $15 an hour, or $11.98 for tipped employees, by 2026. After that, the state minimum wage will increase with inflation. 

According to the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute, an estimated 646,000 working Floridians will see their wages rise starting Thursday. By 2026, that number is expected to reach 2.5 million, or 25% of Florida’s workforce, and lift as many as 1.3 million Florida households out of poverty.

Despite an unsuccessful attempt by St. Petersburg Republican Jeffrey Brandes to exempt certain workers from seeing this wage increase earlier this year, the new minimum wage requirement will apply to all employees in Florida who are covered by the federal minimum wage.

Florida’s vote to approve the wage boost last year was a victory for low-wage workers statewide—including Gail Rogers, a 61-year old crew leader at a McDonald’s in Ybor City who was actively involved in local actions to uplift Florida’s $15 minimum wage amendment last year. Rogers has worked in the fast food industry for over 40 years, and currently makes $10 an hour on the job. Working part-time, she gets about $530 every couple weeks from McDonald’s, with rent that costs her $425 a month on top of utilities. 

She lives alone, and recently purchased a vehicle to help her get around. Previously, she’d relied on her bike or the bus to get to work. This new mode of transportation, while hardly a luxury, has cost her and she’s been picking up extra shifts at work just to cover her car and insurance payments.

Rogers did recently see a small increase in her pay from $9.62 to her current hourly rate of $10, and expects to see another bump to $10.62 reflected on her next paycheck.

But with Tampa Bay on track to become more rent-burdened than Los Angeles, she knows this isn’t enough. “We need a union,” Rogers told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, in a phone interview. “$15 and a union. This is what we’re fighting for, and we’re not going to stop.”

Rogers, herself a former union member, has been an active participant in the Fight for $15 and a union movement for years. She’s become an outspoken advocate on both a local and on a national stage for a $15 federal minimum wage, strengthening worker protections, and recently, passing the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

"Corporations, like [McDonald’s], actively block workers from organizing and winning our unions,” Rogers told former U.S. presidential candidate Julian Castro during a campaign summit in 2019. “How will you stand with and rewrite the rules for workers like me to win our unions and build power?”

click to enlarge Richie Flouyd believes last year’s passage of Amendment 2 shows that Floridians know what’s best for their interests and those of their fellow workers. - RichieFloydStPete/Facebook
Richie Flouyd believes last year’s passage of Amendment 2 shows that Floridians know what’s best for their interests and those of their fellow workers.

Richie Floyd, a local political organizer and candidate for St. Pete City Council, helped lead volunteer recruitment efforts for the statewide Florida for 15 coalition last year, which sent more than 3.1 million texts to voters in an effort to garner support for Amendment 2. As a union member with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, he—like Rogers—also believes in the power of organizing. “Things like unions and collective bargaining agreements, that's the number one way that workers can make their lives better,” Floyd told CL.

But the upcoming minimum wage boost, he said, is still a big deal. “We're going to be one of the leaders in the country,” he said, noting that Florida’s one of just eight states nationwide that’s on track to have a $15 minimum wage by 2026—more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 

Florida has a lot of low-income jobs based off its tourist and service economy, Floyd said. He believes last year’s passage of Amendment 2 shows that Floridians know what’s best for their interests and those of their fellow workers.

Rogers, the local McDonald’s worker, said she has coworkers who are excited for the upcoming wage boost. “It can make a difference, you know? It’s just sad that it took so long.”

The McDonald’s corporation, for its part, reported nearly $5 billion in profits last year, yet continues to deny its workers a U.S. living wage—which MIT estimates to be about $16.54 an hour. Not only that, McDonald’s also previously lobbied against a $15 federal minimum wage, and is currently the defendant in a number of racial discrimination lawsuits.

But Rogers continues on. She’s good at her job and takes pride in her work. “I know how to treat people,” she said proudly. “My service is on-point.” The regulars who frequent her McDonald’s say as much both to her and her General Manager, that Ms. Rogers is the reason they return. But, still, it’s tough.

Last September, Rogers walked off the job to protest low wages, cut hours, and unsafe working conditions for herself and coworkers. This year, she became sick with COVID-19. 

Since then, she said she’s developed shortness of breath—a struggle she continues to experience to this day. Her legs swell, and she’s on oxygen. While at work, she regularly takes customers’ orders out to their cars for pick-up. She finds herself having to take a moment or two each time to catch her breath before heading back inside. “I have good days and bad days, where I have to call off sometimes,” she said. 

Despite this, she’s not deterred. And she has hope. More than that, she wants those who voted in favor of Amendment 2 to know that the fight isn’t over—the fight for a $15 minimum wage and the right of all workers to form a union. “I need those voices,” Rogers told CL. To stand up with Fight for $15 at protests and stand with low-wage workers like herself. “I need those voices from churches, neighbors...Let me know you’re with me,” she said. “Support me.”

‘It’s good business’ to raise wages for workers

It’s not just workers like Rogers or political organizers like Floyd who see the value in paying Florida workers something closer to a livable wage. Leigh Anne Balzekas, a co-owner of The Disco Dolls in Seminole Heights, told CL that all of her shop’s employees make a minimum of $15 an hour—and have for the 11 years it’s been in business, save for one staff member, a high school student, who Balzekas said they paid an hourly rate of $9 at the time.

The Disco Dolls is, in Balzekas’ own words, a sustainably-focused hair, art, and fashion boutique that she co-owns with her sister. They offer hair services, have an ethically-made clothing line, and have a revolving local art gallery in-house.

Last year, The Disco Dolls became one of more than 150 Florida businesses who joined the Florida Business for a Fair Minimum Wage coalition in support of Amendment 2.

Paying staff a decent wage “was always very important to us,” Balzekas said. Even their hair stylists, who are on commission, make a guaranteed minimum of $15 an hour, she said. Both Balzekas and her sister Kristine Ownley come from a background of working low-wage jobs. Office jobs. Her sister, working as a hair stylist herself. Thus, from The Disco Dolls’ beginning, they wanted it to start first and foremost with ethics in mind.

As a small business owner, Balzekas rejects the notion that fair wages for workers hurts small businesses. On the contrary, she said respecting the time and work of her staff has helped them retain and attract new workers, and ultimately helps their business. “What’s actually affecting small businesses negatively is having that lower minimum wage,” she said. “My customers are my community...and if they’re making more money, they’re spending it here and we’re keeping it local.”

click to enlarge Last year, The Disco Dolls in Tampa, Florida became one of more than 150 Florida businesses who joined the Florida Business for a Fair Minimum Wage coalition in support of Amendment 2. - TheDiscoDolls/Facebook
Last year, The Disco Dolls in Tampa, Florida became one of more than 150 Florida businesses who joined the Florida Business for a Fair Minimum Wage coalition in support of Amendment 2.

As for the business leaders, and organizations like the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, which contends that higher wages would kill jobs and crush small business owners’ prospects? 

“Maybe you need to look at how you’re doing business,” Balkezas advised, as her “non-politically correct” suggestion. “Money is not pie,” she said. There’s more because people are putting it into the economy. And it’s just “good business” to raise the minimum wage, she said, adding that she and her sister will be looking to increase their staffs’ minimum hourly rate in the near future.

Balzekas isn’t the only local small business owner who supports a $15 minimum wage. Danielle Ferrari, owner of Tampa’s Valhalla Resale, also thinks a $15 minimum wage for workers is good for business—and backs that up with her own starting pay of $15 for her clothing resale shop’s employees. “It’s human rights,” Ferrari told CL, first and foremost. 

But not only that, it also helps you get more customers. “From a policy standpoint, it’s really important for your business to be able to have customers that make more money than they did last week,” Ferrari said.

In business since 2017, Ferrari told CL she currently employs just two staff members, herself not included, and has never paid workers less than $14 an hour. In contrast to reports of a labor shortage circulating in Florida and nationwide this year, Ferrari said she experienced the exact opposite when she started searching for a new hire after the vaccine rollout. “I had double the amount of applicants,” she said.

She also believes it’s short-sighted for small business owners in Florida to fear a $15 minimum wage. But, she insists that it’s really the bigger corporations like McDonald’s who really don’t want this wage hike. “They’re the ones who are going to ‘suffer,’” said Ferrari, “because they’re really stealing wages from their employees and depositing into shareholder pockets.”

Low wage workers disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 unemployment

A national report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that the COVID-19 recession hit low-wage workers in the U.S. the hardest last year, particularly workers in the leisure and hospitality, education, government, and health services industries. 

Workers of color, including Black women, Hispanic women, and Asian and Pacific Islanders saw disproportionate losses, per the report, demonstrating the significance of unemployment as a class issue as well as one of racial and gender equity.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was quick to end federal unemployment benefits for working Floridians, a lifeline for many, as part of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in June. And was even unsuccessfully sued for it. 

Labor organizations like the AFL-CIO, for their part, were up in arms about the early termination. Nationally, Florida was just one of 26 states, largely GOP-controlled, that ended these federal unemployment benefits early, hoping it would spur a hiring boom and reverse what’s been described as a fairly sizable labor shortage. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen

But workers are organizing. Or fighting for the right of workers to organize more easily anyway, both in Florida and across the country. “We can come together and make a push for the things we want, whatever those are,” Valencia College adjunct professor, Joe Angley, told CL’s sister publication Orlando Weekly in June, after his own colleagues won union recognition. A push for fair wages, job security, and the ability to have a voice on the job.

UPDATED 09/29/30 2:45 p.m. Updated to remove mention of Amazon, which pays employees at least $15 and hour.

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