BROOKSVILLE - Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, urged county commissioners this week to support statewide efforts to raise the state's minimum wage so employees can earn a living wage.
The minimum wage in Florida is $7.93-per hour. Tipped employees make $4.91 an hour. Both groups of employees saw the minimum wage raise 14 cents on Jan. 1. Hernando County Democrats are supporting Senate Bill 456 and House Bill 385 that would raise it to $10.10 an hour, even for tipped employees.
Of the 37,100 people employed in Hernando County, a minimum of 9,000 (or one of every four workers) earns less than $10.10 per hour, according to data from the Florida Department of Revenue.
The average wage per person in Hernando County is $31,952 annually, or $15.36 per hour.
Zeledon said local corporations are making record profits and can afford to pay employees more.
County commissioners did not take any stand on the issue during a meeting Tuesday. Chairman Wayne Dukes said it is a national issue and doesn't come under the purview of the board.
But Dukes said on Thursday that raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would have a negative effect in Hernando County because so many people are seniors on fixed incomes and others are making lower wages than other areas of the state.
If business owners had to pay their employees more, they would likely have to pass those increased costs to consumers who are not able to afford many products and services already, he said.
The real way to help the economy is to create jobs and that doesn't seem to be happening nationwide, he said. Dukes said it is easy to blame corporations and businesses as the "bad guy" and responsible for "all the woes of the country"
"We need to generate jobs and get people back to work," he said.
But in a three-minute statement during citizens' comments Tuesday, Zeledon said corporations have enough money to go around.
"An employee that dedicates at least 40 hours a week full-time to his company should be able to afford basic living expenses like rent and food," Zeledon said. "Major employers in our county, most of who are setting record profit margins, that continue to pay their workers the very least the law allows, are willfully the recipients of corporate welfare in as much as their employees are on government subsidies.
Zeledon said the county's low-wage workers qualify for Medicaid, food stamps and Section 8 housing allowances and, as taxpayers, "we should all be outraged."
Zeledon cited an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute that found Florida's increase to $10.10 per hour would benefit an estimated 416,000 low-wage workers and boost economic growth through consumer spending by $62.7 million statewide.
"Historically, raising the minimum wage has always helped the economy grow," he said. "It's not just the moral thing to do. It will provide Hernando County with a much-needed economic stimulus."
Zeledon's comments spurred government watchdog Chuck Gordon on Tuesday to offer a dissenting view.
"I know at times I worked two jobs to make it," Gordon told board members. "I think it wouldn't hurt some of these people who want freebies to work a little more than 40 hours. I'm tired of supporting somebody who doesn't want to work."
Florida is one of about 19 states where the minimum wage is tied to the rate of inflation and the minimum wage is higher. Other states abide by the current federally mandated rate of $7.25 an hour, unchanged since 2009. At that rate, an employee working 40 hours a week would make about $15,080 annually.
John Mitten, franchise operator of the Chick-fil-A on State Road 50, said he tries to pay his approximately 50 employees more than the current $7.93 an hour rate. But raising it to $10.10 means he would either have to place more work responsibilities on existing employees or pass the costs to patrons, options Milton said he would rather not do.
"If they increase it to $10.10, it would change the dynamic of every fast food establishment in Hernando County," Mitten said.
"Anytime you raise the cost of doing business, you also raise the cost to the consumer," Mitten said. "Businesses are not in business to provide jobs. They're in business to make money. So when you increase the cost of doing business, it increases the cost to everyone."