Mar 162005
 

Last November, the voters of Florida went to the polls and by an overwhelming majority passed a constitutional amendment raising the state minimum wage by $1, to $6.15 an hour, and indexing it to inflation. Now a cadre of anti-democratic right-wingers in the Florida legislature is working furiously to undermine the voters’ intent. The group, led by Florida House Judiciary Chairman David Simmons, is pushing a bill that “creates loopholes for employers and eliminates vital protections for workers.” Simmons got help writing the bill from the Florida Retail Federation, which lobbied furiously last year to kill the amendment.

The bill being pushed by Simmons requires employees to provide their employers 15-days notice before suing for a minimum wage dispute. If the employer pays the back wages during that time there can be no suit. This effectively eliminates any incentive for employers to comply with the law. Employers can simply withhold wages until their employees call them on it. Failing to comply with the law is transformed from a criminal offense to an interest-free loan from the employee to the employer. Simmons said that employers shouldn’t be punished for “not knowing all the ins and outs of the law.”

Even if an employer ignores the employee’s complaint for 15 days and a suit is filed, Simmons’s bill insulates the employer from any significant penalty. Employees would be prevented from receiving any interest on unpaid wages, punitive damages or money for pain and suffering. The amendment approved by 70 percent of Florida voters specifically provides for relief “as may be appropriate to remedy the violation.” The St. Petersburg Times asks: “Might not punitive damages be in order if an employer repeatedly and knowingly cheats his employees out of their fair wages?

Since the amount of back pay owed to minimum wage workers will always be relatively low, the efficient way for workers to recover is by joining together for a class action lawsuit. (It’s also the only practical way most will be able to get any representation at all.) Simmons’s bill “would make class action suits virtually impossible to bring,” even though “the amendment specifically intended to allow for class action suits.”

While his allies in the Florida House work to undermine the minimum wage, Gov. Jeb Bush has “proposed repealing a tax on wealthy investors.” Calling the people who will benefit “wealthy investors” may be a bit of an understatement. The so-called “intangibles tax” which Jeb Bush wants to repeal affects “married couples who file taxes jointly…only if they have more than $560,000 in assets such as stocks and bonds.” Individuals and businesses benefit “only if they have more than $310,000 of such investments.” The repeal would cost the state $235 million next year alone.

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