Why Florida's New $15 Minimum Wage Is a Big Deal

Source: Inc.

The new policy, approved by Florida voters on Tuesday, could signal a momentum shift in favor of a nationwide minimum-wage hike. The business lobby is not happy

On Election Day, Floridians voted to increase their state's minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026--yet businesses everywhere could feel the pain.

Florida's Amendment 2, which passed with a "Yes" vote of 61 percent, will incrementally raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour in six years, from its current $8.56 per hour. Florida is now the eighth U.S. state to incrementally raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and the first state to achieve it through a ballot initiative rather than congressional legislation. The distinction is important: Florida's amendment is being viewed as a nationwide test for voter support, and it passed with flying colors.

"The stakes were higher," says Josh Altic, who researches ballot measures at Ballotpedia, a nonprofit resource website for voters. "Not to just pass the measure in Florida, but to show that this issue could win by 10 percentage points in a state that President Trump won."

The bipartisan nature of Amendment 2's success could help shatter the narrative that conservative voters tend to reject minimum-wage increases on principle. Rather, Altic says, such measures are usually countered solely by Republican elected officials and business advocacy groups--which is why ballot initiatives often succeed where legislative pushes fail. "There have been 26 [minimum-wage ballot] measures since 1996, and they've all been approved, except for two," Altic says. 

The notion that the measure will gain wider adoption is cause for concern among some businesses and advocacy groups, in and outside the state. The National Restaurant Association and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association led the opposition to Amendment 2, arguing that wage increases would catastrophically balloon small-business budgets and force businesses owners to cut jobs statewide. 

"Given the devastating impacts Covid-19 has already had on Florida's economy, we are extremely worried about the job losses and business closures that will accompany this mandate," Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We have seen too many places across the country that have implemented this wage hike, only to see workers who were promised more money instead lose their jobs altogether."

It's going to sting, no doubt, says David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. "Businesses will have to adjust," he says. "But more than 40 years of experience with raising minimum wages and decades of really high-quality research show that those adjustments are really not as onerous as businesses claim they will be."

Indeed, many companies already pay far above the state minimum. Florida's lowest-paid hourly workers last year, gambling dealers, had a median hourly wage of $9.25, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They're one of eight worker categories that'll see a wage spike when Florida's first incremental increase, up to $10 per hour, starts next year.

And then there are the benefits to spiking wages. Cooper notes that minimum-wage increases typically decrease employee turnover, increase productivity, and infuse more money into local economies--often resulting in more paying customers for businesses. That's especially true when minimum-wage workers can afford to work a single full-time job; at 40 hours per week, Florida's current $8.56 per hour minimum wage translates to less than $18,000 per year. "I don't think it's realistic that anyone could get by on that sort of income," Cooper says. "And that's not unique to Florida."

Presently, 21 states have minimum wages under $8.56 per hour. Only six of them--Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming--feature processes for statewide ballot initiatives, making them states to watch during the next election cycle. Altic also points to Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which all raised their minimum wages in 2014 via ballot measures, as noteworthy candidates to join the so-called "Fight for $15" movement.

Federal action is also possible. In the early 2000s, a raft of statewide minimum-wage increases--including Florida in 2004--prompted the federal government to raise its standard to $7.25 per hour, where it remains today. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden campaigned on incrementally raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and conservative-leaning Florida's vote could pave the way for any future Democratic administration to more easily champion a nationwide wage increase.Florida's plan starts with a jump to $10 per hour on September 30, 2021. Clearly, a host of interested parties will be watching. Says Cooper: "If Florida can make this work, I think it shows that any state in the country can make it work."