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February 22, 2011
State Sued Over Minimum Wage

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Florida Legal Services (FLS) recently filed a lawsuit alleging that the State has refused to raise Florida’s minimum wage to keep pace with the rising cost of living as required by state law. The lawsuit claims that since January 1, approximately 188,000 minimum wage workers have been denied a six cent raise to $7.31 per hour in violation of Florida’s constitution, which requires Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI) to increase the minimum wage each year for inflation.

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“In 2004, Floridians voted 72 percent to 28 percent to amend the state’s constitution to make the minimum wage increase each year to keep pace with the rising cost of living,” said Paul Sonn, legal co-director of NELP and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “Florida’s AWI has inexplicably ignored the requirement this year, violating the constitution and shortchanging thousands of working Floridians who are struggling to get by in this tough economy,” Sonn said.

According to NELP, seven states that have similar minimum wage laws, including Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, increased their state minimum wages on January 1 to keep pace with inflation. Florida should have done the same but did not, the plaintiffs charge.

“Unlike higher wage-earners, those at the lowest end of the scale tend to spend rather than put away additional earnings, meaning that any added income goes directly into Florida’s economy,” said Jose Javier Rodriguez, FLS attorney and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “As Governor Rick Scott’s Administration conducts its review of agencies and departments, a top priority should be to correct AWI’s continued refusal to follow a constitutional mandate created with the overwhelming support of Floridians. This is not a partisan or political issue. When it comes to our prosperity, it’s a ‘no-brainer.’”

According to the lawsuit, the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s minimum wage law “clearly does not provide for decreases in the minimum wage in times of deflation,” yet AWI reduced the state minimum wage from $7.21 in 2009 to $7.06 in 2010 because of deflation. AWI reduced the rate in spite of internal AWI memos acknowledging the Supreme Court ruling and expressing concern that a decrease was not permitted under state law, the plaintiffs contend. In addition, the lawsuit claims that AWI failed to publicly announce its calculations as required by state law. Florida’s workers were spared from the wage cut only because the federal minimum wage increased to $7.25, the lawsuit says.

Because AWI’s calculation for 2010 was artificially low, the agency miscalculated the 2011 rate at $7.16 per hour when it should be $7.31, six cents more than the federal rate, the lawsuit concludes. AWI has allegedly refused plaintiffs’ request to correct the error.

NELP and FLS filed the lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court on behalf of four minimum wage workers and three organizations representing low-wage workers: the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Miami, WeCount! in Homestead, and the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka.

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