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The Minimum Wage Challenge

Rita Breus and Ebeline Miteyer hold signs in support of raising the minimum wage at a rally at Greater Bethel AMF Church in Overtown, Miami, April 15, 2015.

The debate over raising the minimum wage is not a fight being waged so much on the federal level. It's a series of battles being waged in cities and states all across the country. 

In Florida the current minimum wage is $8.05 per hour. But there's a movement, led by Democrats, trying to change that to something they believe is more livable. They believe it should be $15 an hour. 

Right now there are anywhere from 180-190,000 Floridians living at or below the minimum wage. That's from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Both sides of this argument will look at those figures and find what they want to make their case. Republicans, who have remained opposed to the idea, say a large percentage of those working for minimum wage are teenagers who live with working parents. However, the statistics show that as of 2013 almost half of those working at the minimum wage were actually 25 and older. 

There are currently two bills in Tallahassee that ask for the increase to $15 an hour. They are House Bill 109 and Senate Bill 6.  

Recently 18 lawmakers (all Democrats) took what's called the Minimum Wage Challenge. They tried to live on $17  a day, for a week. That number was calculated as what a person who works about 40 hours a week at the current minimum wage would have left after taxes and housing costs. 

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami was one of the ones who took the challenge. And, he had to start by explaining how he lost one of the challenges on the very first day.

You failed at one of your challenges. What happened?  

I think the most important thing for people to understand is that this is a symbolic exercise. None of us are missing our mortgage payments. The idea is, you get a budget equivalent to what somebody working full time all year round on the minimum wage would get, and one of the most important points here is that that is below the federal poverty level. So somebody working hard all year full time is still below the federal poverty level when they’re making $8.05 an hour. So one day this week I decided to take public transportation. I went to the bus stop; I had just missed the bus, so I would wait for the next one. And according to the schedule it was going to be another 15 or 16 minutes. After 20 minutes, 25 minutes, I had to go, so I got a ride. Again, this is part of a symbolic exercise. In the real world, I would have gotten to work late. I would have gotten chewed out. Or more than likely I would have just gotten used to the fact that the bus runs 20-30 minutes late sometimes, and I would have gotten up that much earlier and had much less time with my family of course and a longer commute.

You went grocery shopping on minimum wage. Take us through the process. What did you buy?

We were joined by people who work at McDonalds. We went through the aisles and just had a conversation on how far you can stretch those $17 a day. What would you buy this week to make sure it would stretch? You’re buying toilet paper; you’re buying beans; you’re buying eggs. The interesting thing, things just come up during the week. You get a parking ticket or something like that. You have to go to the emergency room or something like that, and so when you’re looking at a budget that tight, any little thing is really going to hit you.

This challenge is linked to the Senate and House bills that propose raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But not one Republican joined you on this challenge. What do you expect this challenge is going to do in convincing at least enough votes to win?

To be clear, what I’m supportive of is a gradual increase in the minimum wage. We have a minimum wage in the state of Florida that’s indexed to inflation. But it’s indexed to a level below the federal poverty level. The Republican leadership has not given a hearing to a minimum wage bill in the years that I’ve been in the legislature. And it makes you wonder if there’s fear of giving a hearing to the bill because of how popular it is. Frankly, when we passed the minimum wage in 2004 it passed with 71 percent of the vote. So it’s a very popular issue and I think they [Republicans] realize that they’re on defense. 

One of the biggest arguments for raising the minimum wage is that it will lift hundreds of thousands out of poverty. The opposition says it could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and prices of goods and services may go up. How does your party have to change its strategy in order to make headway?

We’ve heard the debates,  but unfortunately they’ve been in the hallways of the capital, in the media and in the public. We’d like to have those debates in a committee room. We’d like to have a vote on the bill. The counter arguments to having a minimum wage and raising the minimum wage have not changed since the 1930’s when it was implemented on the federal level. The primary argument is, and I think it’s generally an intuitive argument, which is that if employers are having to pay a little bit more over large workforce, maybe they’ll hire less people. There have been a lot of economists who have dug into that question. What they tend to find is that there is no real disemployment effect. They’re not finding that employers hire less. So to the extent that they’re in a less competitive position, they’re really not. All of their competitors have the same workforce, and the interesting thing is, that there’s a small, barely perceptible positive effect, which is the following; If you’re making minimum wage and you get a small raise, that goes into the economy; barber shop, corner store...that kind of thing. That doesn’t go into your 401(k). So it’s a little bit of a stimulus program.

How realistic is it that these bills have a chance in a legislature controlled by Republicans and a Republican governor?

Especially when the governor’s reaction to the minimum wage when he was asked about it, I think last year, he said he recoiled. Again, what we’re wanting is a debate on the issue and we want to vote on it. One of the things that I have been highlighting, apart from raising minimum wage, is enforcing the minimum wage. One of the things that Sen. Bullard and I have been highlighting the last couple weeks is that we have a minimum wage on the books in the state of Florida [that] the attorney general has the authority to enforce. But since the minimum wage has been on the books that has not happened in the state of Florida. There is no outreach, there’s no investigation and there are no legal actions to enforce the minimum wage, which is very different from states like California, Illinois, New York, where you have an active attorney general trying to make sure people actually receive the minimum wage and aren’t subject to things like being forced off the clock, being forced to work more hours than is actually in your paycheck. So many different things that happen to people in the real world, in the workforce, that it means that they’re actually receiving the $8.05 that we have in the law.

We come back to the idea that you were simply taking a challenge, you weren’t really living on minimum wage. How doesn’t that in any way come off as maybe a little disingenuous considering you live well compared to any of those folks?

That’s a very good point, and you’re right. Like I say, it’s symbolic. And I’ve been very open about the fact that I’ve taken the minimum wage challenge. Frankly I probably give myself a failing grade because I had decided I was going to rely on public transportation at least some of the days and I wasn’t able to do it. I don’t find it disingenuous. Listen, I tried this symbolic exercise and here’s what happened. What happened was, it was just too difficult. I couldn’t miss my court hearing downtown for this symbolic exercise. I’ve heard that criticism. I have not been out here representing that I am walking in anyone’s shoes. I have been very quick to correct people because I’m not. I’m going through a symbolic exercise to try and highlight what we’re trying to do in Tallahassee.