Wasserman Schultz in the Orlando Sentinel: On Labor Day, let’s commit to making Florida a better place for workers

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Washington, September 1, 2019 | comments
Florida ranks 49 out of 50 in the country for the worst income inequality. The consequences for our state’s families are severe: nearly half of households can’t afford basic needs.
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Wasserman Schultz: On Labor Day, let’s commit to making Florida a better place for workers | Commentary

By Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Florida is home to 51 billionaires. It also ranks 49th out of 50 in the country for the worst income inequality.

According to the Florida Policy Institute, 1% of Florida’s families earn nearly 40 times as much as the other 99%. The consequences for our state’s families are severe: a United Way study found nearly half of Florida households can’t afford basic needs — like housing, health care, food, child care and transportation.

As some individuals and companies thrive, countless workers endure declining wages and arduous conditions. More than 3 million Florida workers earn less than $15 an hour, making it nearly impossible for them to afford to raise families and invest in a future.

Workers in our state are demanding safety, basic job protections and fair pay. Just this year, fast food workers protested a lack of harassment protections and advocated for fair wages; airport employees went on strike over unsafe working conditions and retaliation for speaking out; and teachers, who are legally barred from striking, held a “walk-in.” Communication workers just went on strike.

In fact, in a recent index of the best states to work, Oxfam ranked Florida near the bottom, at No. 37. The index considers wages, worker protections, and organizing rights. Florida scored poorly across all three categories, scoring only 27 out of 100. That’s a failing grade by any measure.

The minimum wage in Florida is $8.46 — about 32% of what constitutes a living wage for a family of four in our state. Our median household income is nearly $8,000 below the U.S. median. In addition, Florida does not allow localities to raise their own wages, even if voters or elected leaders pass such a law.

Our state’s top industry is tourism, yet a new study by Florida State University found it provides the lowest earnings for employees — earnings that have not kept pace with the U.S. economy.

Low wages have a disproportionate impact on women and people of color and perpetuate longstanding inequalities. Half of Florida’s black and Latina women earn less than $15 an hour, compared with 37% of all workers. More than half of all women would receive a raise if the minimum wage is raised to $15.

Florida doesn’t only fall short on fair wages — it also scores poorly on worker protections and organizing rights, and fails to provide accommodations for pregnant workers, paid sick or family leave or flexible scheduling.

As a “right-to-work” state, Florida makes union organizing difficult, thus choking workers’ ability to speak out on job dangers or to demand better wages.

The result: families suffer. Declining wages make monthly bills harder to pay. Inflexible schedules put a work-family balance out of reach. No paid leave means people work when they’re ill.

While the Oxfam scorecard provides harsh evidence of how far we lag as a state, it also offers a road map for making positive changes. Other states with similar workforces can be models for ways to improve the lives of Florida’s workers and their families.

In Congress, I’m working to enact national changes to improve workers’ lives, including three key pieces of legislation that passed the U.S. House this year.

  • The Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to prove that any pay disparities exist for legitimate, job-related reasons.
  • The Raise the Wage Act would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, and phase out the subminimum wage for tipped, young and disabled workers.
  • The Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act would preserve and stabilize hard-earned pensions.

I’m also cosponsoring legislation to address workplace violence for health care and social workers, protect workers’ right to organize, prohibit forced arbitration, restore overtime pay, require comprehensive nondiscrimination policies, and allow above-the-line tax deductions for union dues and expenses.

On this Labor Day, let’s all commit to this: Florida workers must have jobs that pay living wages with robust job protections, and we must pass legislation that ensures all working families can afford basic needs, and reverse our growing economic inequality. These changes will not only help Florida’s families now, they will make our state stronger well into the future, and, as attractive a place for our workers as it is for visitors.

Read the op-ed here.

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