Among the most controversial bills filed in advance of the 2021 Florida legislative session is a proposal by state Sen. Jeff Brandes that would amend the constitutional amendment passed last November that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2026.

What You Need To Know

  • Socially distanced caravan protest was held Tuesday in St. Pete

  • Minimum wage amendment proposal by Sen. Jeff Brandes at center of protest

  • Pinellas County commissioner calls the proposal unfair

  • More Politics headlines

The St. Petersburg Republican’s measure would allow the Legislature to exempt convicted felons, people under 21 and other “hard to hire” workers from receiving that higher wage – but it would only go into effect if passed by the voters as a constitutional amendment. The proposal prompted a socially distanced caravan protest that ended in the parking lot of Brandes district office in north St. Petersburg on Tuesday (before an official with the building informed the motorist/activists that they had to park their cars elsewhere).

“We fight against those who want to keep the low low, and the high high,” said Tampa resident Alex Harris through a bullhorn.

Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers was also on hand. She says the Brandes proposal is unfair.

“We always say that if you pay your debt you can come home and you’ll be embraced,” Flowers said of those who have served their time in prison for a felony offense. “But that’s not so…we want people to return back to our community. We need to pay them a living wage so that they can take care of themselves, so they’re not thinking about going back and doing the things that got ‘em in trouble in the first place.”

Brandes’ has maintained that his research shows that minimum wage requirements in other states have actually hurt “hard to hire” employees, and that he’s jump starting a conversation on implementing a training wage that would allow them to get into the job market, with the ultimate goal of getting them to the minimum wage or higher in the near future (Hard to hire employees would be defined as any group that is three times the state’s unemployment rate, Brandes says).

“It’s really trying to create an extra rung on the latter of success for them to be able to get to, because for many that first rung is just too high, and employers just aren’t going to look at those types of applications because they’re competing with people who don’t have a criminal record,”  Brandes told Spectrum Bay News 9 earlier this month. “Or for teenagers, they’re competing with people who already have the skills to take on that kind of job.”

The GOP lawmaker says that in his research of other states, the period of having these hard-to-hire employees working below the minimum wage can go from 200 hours to six months to a year. The Legislature would need to agree on that time period.

Activists for years in Florida sought to get the Legislature to increase the minimum wage, to no success in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. However, the 2020 constitutional amendment was popular with voters last fall, winning nearly 61 percent of the vote in making Florida the first state in the South to call for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The minimum wage in Florida is currently $8.65 an hour. Under the 2020 constitutional amendment, it will go to $10 this September and increase by $1 each year until it reaches $15.

Critics say raising the minimum wage costs jobs.

As President Joe Biden contemplates proposing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, a Congressional Budget Office report published last week said doing so would increase wages for at least 17 million people, but also put 1.4 million Americans out of work.

Leigh Anne Balzekas runs the Disco Dolls Studio in Tampa. She’s one small business owner who supports raising the minimum wage.

“As soon as the stimulus package came in, I saw sales rise in my store,” she said Tuesday. “If we are paying people fairly, they will stimulate the economy.”