It has been a long time coming but Hector Rivera is hopeful that one day soon he will be able to take a day off work. The 61-year-old works as a janitor in Miami, Florida, making just over $9 an hour. Because the pay is so low, Rivera works two janitorial jobs and scrambles to find gig jobs on the weekends in order to cover his rent and bills every month.
“Trying to survive on this salary is extremely difficult because I’m constantly looking for more work,” said Rivera, a Dominican and one of the millions of Latino and Black Americans who are disproportionately represented in the low-wage sector.
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On 3 November Rivera, and the millions of Americans fighting for a raise for low-wage workers, were given a boost when Florida passed a resolution to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Raising the minimum wage was a central plank of Joe Biden’s election campaign and Florida’s vote came even as the state voted for Donald Trump. But while workers and activists are cheering the victory, the road ahead for Biden and a raise in the minimum wage looks tough.
It’s been eight years since fast-food workers walked off their jobs in New York City and began calling for a $15 minimum wage. In that time the Fight for $15 movement grew to be the largest protest movement for low-wage workers in US history and has won some important victories.
Florida is the first state in the south and the eighth state overall to adopt such a measure. And some big corporations including Amazon, Target and Walt Disney have raised, or promised to raise, their minimum wages to $15.
After Biden’s win, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a longtime supporter of the movement, urged the incoming Biden administration to use all the “tools in their toolbox” to push a raise through and Biden has promised to back unions who are also pushing hard for a statewide raise for low-wage workers.
Rivera was among the low-wage workers who got involved with a union organizing drive for change at his workplace with Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. The Florida ballot, known as amendment two, will gradually increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 from its current minimum wage set at $8.56 an hour.
“With amendment two passing, I’ll be able to spend more time with my family,” said Rivera, who recently spent 35 hours working straight without any sleep. “Hopefully now I’ll be able to take a day off,” Rivera added. “The only way we can live a decent life here in Miami is if they raise our wages because everything is expensive. It’s impossible to save money without making more.”
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A raise has broad support in the US, even in Republican states. Over 60% of Florida voters approved the measure. In Louisiana, another Republican state where the minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour, a Louisiana State University poll 59% of residents support raising it to $15.
Nor is there much evidence that a raise would be bad for business. A UC Berkeley report published in July 2019 found even low-wage areas in the US can afford a $15 minimum wage, which would reduce poverty and have no adverse effects, such as job losses. Most economic research on the subject has demonstrated little to no negative consequences to employment while providing positive gains for the low-wage workforce. The last time Florida increased its state minimum wage in 2004, unemployment dropped and 200,000 jobs were added the following year.
But many Republicans still oppose the rise and, without control of the Senate, Biden may struggle to pass the first increase in the federal minimum wage in 11 years. In Florida the amendment was strongly opposed by Republicans, including Governor Ron DeSantis, who claimed raising the minimum wage would eliminate jobs and hurt businesses. The Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, blocked a raise in 2019.
The Florida victory is a key win for low-wage workers and will be a particular benefit to women and people of color, who make up a large share of the low-wage workforce. The rise is expected to increase wages for 2.5 million Florida residents, 26% of the state’s workforce, according to a report by the Florida Policy Institute.
“Women and minorities are disproportionately represented among those currently under $15 an hour so the passage of amendment two will help to decrease the gender and race wage gap,” said Richie Floyd, an organizer in support of the amendment with Pinellas Democratic Socialists in Pinellas county, Florida. “We held car caravans, supported worker actions and sent 3.1m text messages to voters across the state. We focused on making sure as many working-class people as possible knew that they could vote to directly improve their material conditions.”
The victory is also a fillip for US unions, which have fought hard to make the minimum wage a national issue and recruit new members in the service sector.
Maria Elena Hernandez works as a janitor at Nova University in Plantation, Florida, and was only making minimum wage until her workplace organized a union and fought for wage increases. Over the past several months Hernandez and other workers canvassed around south Florida in support of amendment two.
“I joined the struggle to pass amendment two because we know $8.56 an hour is not enough to survive,” said Hernandez. “The only way we can achieve wage increases is by organizing ourselves, and it benefits everyone; working people, local businesses and the economy.”
But change has been a long time coming and national victory – even after Biden’s win – is far from certain.
The federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour, has not been raised since 2009, the longest it has remained unchanged since a federal minimum wage was first enacted in 1938. Adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of the current federal minimum wage is 31% less than what was in 1968, even though the productivity of the American worker has nearly doubled since then.
In the midst of a pandemic that has hit low-wage workers hardest, change could not be more needed, said Holly Sklar, chief executive officer of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, which supported the Florida amendment.
“Parts of the purpose of minimum wage since it was first enacted in 1938 was to help us recover from the Great Depression,” said Sklar. “From a business point of view, a shared economic recovery is important. We believe you cannot build a shared economic recovery on a minimum wage that’s too low to live on.”