What would an extra 48 cents a day, $2.40 a week, or $124.80 a year mean to you? Six-cents an hour may seem like small change, but for nearly two hundred thousand minimum wage workers in Florida, it has resulted in litigation and an increased paycheck.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled last week that the State of Florida violated Florida’s Constitution by failing to raise the state minimum wage on January 1 to reflect last year’s increase in the cost of living. As a result, the rate will be increased from $7.25 to $7.31 an hour effective June 1st.
In 2004, Floridians voted by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin to amend the Constitution to enact a state minimum wage. Under the voter-approved amendment, the minimum wage would increase every January to keep pace with any cost of living increase the past year. In those rare instances where the cost of living decreased, the minimum wage would remain the same.
In January, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) filed suit against Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI) for not raising Florida’s minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living.
Eight states have laws that tier their minimum wage to the federal rate, the cost of living and inflation. With the exception of Florida, each of these states – Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, Montana, Vermont, and Washington – raised their minimum wage for 2011 to account for inflation.
Impacted are approximately 647,000 Americans who earn minimum wage. Two hundred thousand of these low-wage workers live in Florida. Considering that the lower rate will continue until June 1st, the mistake will cost each of the state's minimum-wage workers about $52.00.
According to the lawsuit, the lower rate was the result of bad accounting. For the year 2009, Florida reduced the minimum wage due to a rare period of deflation. According to the ruling, the rate should have held steady during a deflationary period. No one noticed the mistake because the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour exceeded the lower state rate.
When the AWI announced no cost of living increase for 2011 and its intent to maintain the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, worker advocates began to take notice. When the state failed to respond to complaints, four low-wage earners – a restaurant worker and three farm workers – sued claiming the minimum rate should be $7.31 an hour.
In his ruling, Judge Lewis stated that the minimum wage can never be decreased and that the state must use the formula laid out in the Florida Constitution to calculate future wages.
The same six-cent increase will apply to minimum-wage tipped employees, whose rates will go from $4.23 to $4.29 an hour.
In a prepared statement, the Agency for Workforce Innovation said the agency is "surprised and disappointed at the judge’s ruling in the minimum wage lawsuit. However, we respect the judge’s order and effective June 1, 2011 Florida’s minimum wage will be $7.31 per hour."
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said she and her colleagues were celebrating a victory for the state's most vulnerable workers. "We're just glad that workers are going to see that six-cent increase in their paycheck," said Gebreselassie. "Nobody disputes that the cost of food and gas and rent is going up a lot. It's hard to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour, and it's hard to make it on $7.31. But every little bit counts."
According to NELP, the six cent an hour increase will result in $28 million more wages for low-income Floridians during 2011, and more than twice that amount in 2012.
For more information on the Agency for Workplace Innovation, please visit http://www.floridajobs.org.
To review Bill Lewis' entire consumer protection series, please visit http://www.williamlewis.us.