dwight-bullard_web_copy.jpgMIAMI — With an itemized shopping list and a determination to spend no more than $45 on a week’s worth of groceries, state Rep. Cynthia Stafford cruised through a Publix supermarket in Tallahassee last week making hard choices:  chicken wings over beef, canned green beans over fresh and no name-brands.

“I like beef but chicken goes a long way and name brands cost too much money,” said Stafford, one of a group of Democratic state lawmakers who pledged to spend a week living on a minimum wage.

But, in the checkout lane, Stafford faced more hard choices. “When I got to the cash register, I had gone over budget,” Stafford said – by $2.17. 

Scratching off her list a salad and a diet cola, Stafford left the store with much less than she wanted to buy but with much more than she had expected to learn about making ends meet.

“I wanted to walk in the shoes – or as best I could – of those workers, those families and individuals who are living on minimum wage,” Stafford said Monday, three days after the exercise ended. “I wanted to know how it felt – and how it felt to make those choices. It was an eye-opener.”

Stafford is sponsoring House Bill 385 to increase the state minimum wage from $7.93 an hour to $10.10 – the amount being pushed by President Barack Obama. State Sen. Dwight Bullard is supporting the call with Senate Bill 486.

The two bills are yet to be moved out of subcommittees in the current legislative session, which prompted Bullard to organize some of his peers to bring more awareness to the issue.

“I mean my reality is that this is very temporary,” Bullard said of the legislators’ efforts.  “I also know this is not the reality for many people living on minimum wage.  I want to lead by example, recruit other legislators and document how difficult it is to go a week with what a minimum wage employee gets.”

Nine legislators, including six from South Florida, took part in the exercise. Joining  Bullard and Stafford were Kionne McGhee and  José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, Shevrin Jones of West Park and Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach. 

“A lot of people in this state are living off minimum wage,” said Powell, who worked for minimum wages when he was a graduate student at Florida State University.  “I had been there before so it was not hard to put my mind back in that place.”

But the reality was jarring, he said.  Going to the mall looking at clothes, you’re reminded, “I’m on minimum wage, I can’t buy this,” Powell said.

“I hear a lot of people’s stories in my district,” Jones said. “Families that don’t have enough food or their lights are turned off.  My parents had the means, so I don’t know this experience of living on a minimum wage but doing it this week really touched my heart.”
Some of the legislators publicized their effort on their Facebook pages. Bullard posted daily about his experiences:

“As I conclude Day 1 of my week long challenge, I’m left with a very keen awareness of the fact that my struggle is not the REAL struggle,” one Bullard post read. “The fact that I’ve paid my rent lets me know that I am not in the same boat as most minimum wage workers.”

Ron Bilbao, political director of SEIU Local 1991, explained that a full-time minimum wage worker makes about $370 a week before taxes.  After accounting for taxes, rent and utilities, a worker is left with about $45 for food and about $55 for gas or public transportation and miscellaneous expenses.

The lawmakers’ push to increase minimum wage is part of a national effort, led by Obama, to hike the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over two years.  State legislators around the country participated during the week starting April 7 in what was called a national week of action, with the slogan, “Raise the Wage.”

Raising the wage has national and statewide support, said U.S. Rep.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. She joined Bullard and Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein during a news conference call on April 10 to further promote the raise the minimum wage project.

According to a Quinnipiac poll conducted this year, 73 percent of Floridians support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Americans nationwide support it also, according to the Pew Research Center.

Florida has the second-highest number of people working on minimum wage, Taddeo-Goldstein said. Raising it to $10.10 in the state would directly benefit more than 1.2 million workers who now make less than that per hour, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But not everyone agrees that raising the minimum wage would be good for the state or the country.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce opposes the proposed wage-hike legislation, agreeing with Republican Gov. Rick Scott who says the focus should be on helping workers get better skills, which would lead to better jobs. Others say raising the wage would hurt small businesses and force layoffs.

After posting his participation in the minimum wage effort on his Facebook page, Jones said he received some feedback critical of the proposed increase.

Miami-Dade Democratic Party responded by citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that if an increase to $10.10 is phased in by 2016, GDP would grow by about $22 billion, resulting in the creation of roughly 85,000 net new jobs over that period. It also says that in 13 states, including Florida, past increases to the minimum wage boosted employment.

Jones, pledging to do the minimum wage project again, said seeing is believing. To doubters, he says, “They should join me in and live off $7.93 an hour.  If they think then they are doing pretty good, then let that conversation begin.”