Florida Republican cuts public comment on bill that could affect wages of thousands of workers

The proposal would in part erase local living wage laws in cities like Orlando, Tampa and Miami

click to enlarge Workers at a Fight for 15 rally in Orlando. - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Workers at a Fight for 15 rally in Orlando.
The Republican chair of a Florida House subcommittee decided on a whim to eliminate public testimony entirely on a bill that could affect the wages of thousands of workers across Florida.

Florida Rep. Tyler Sirois, chair of the House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development subcommittee, said there was no time for legislators to hear comments from the public, surprising dozens of people who had signed up to speak on House Bill 433.

If it's been a while since your high-school civics class, this bit from the Congress.gov explainer of the American legislative process “How Our Laws Are Made” is worth revisiting: 

“Perhaps the most important phase of the legislative process is the action by committees. The committees provide the most intensive consideration to a proposed measure as well as the forum where the public is given their opportunity to be heard.” (emphasis ours)

There's nothing in there about “except when you don't feel like it.”

The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Tiffany Esposito, would in part eliminate local living wage laws, covering thousands of contracted workers in some of Florida’s largest cities. It would also prevent local governments from requiring employers to do things like provide water, shade or other cooling measures for workers laboring outside.

And, in its broadest stroke, the bill would prohibit communities from establishing any kind of law affecting the “terms and conditions” of employment. Presumably that would include things like work hours, job benefits and paid leave, but Esposito declined to expand on her own understanding of what that would encompass, when questioned.

Despite its broad implications, Esposito (who also serves as president of her regional chamber of commerce) did not get to hear feedback on the bill from Floridians who traveled to Tallahassee to provide their input.

“Given the number of speaker cards that we have, I’m mindful of the schedule, and also the need for members to have debate,” said Rep. Sirois, R-Merritt Island, after earlier estimating an excess of 50 speaker cards.

Sirois told the public he would read out every person’s name, their organization (as applicable), and their position on the legislation, “but unfortunately, our time will not allow for speakers to present to us.”

The Republican lawmaker then spent the next seven minutes reading off the names of each person who had signed up to either speak or waive their position. Jackson Oberlink, lobbyist for Florida Rising — a left-leaning social advocacy group — described the process to Orlando Weekly as a “sham” that was “built and designed for corporate interests.”

“This is the second time Chair Sirois scheduled this bill for committee and cut public testimony,” Oberlink shared in a text. The legislation, HB 433, was originally scheduled to be heard on Dec. 13, ahead of the official start of the 2024 legislative session. The bill was temporarily postponed, however, for a later meeting. Sirois did not allow for public comment at that time either.

Ahead of cutting off public comment on the bill, the committee had already extended the meeting by a half-hour. The panel of lawmakers had spent a considerable amount of time discussing the potential benefits and ramifications of legislation limiting minors’ access to social media (HB 1) and porn websites (HB 3), and their remaining meeting time was running short.

Esposito, a freshman member of the Florida House elected in 2022, was given time to briefly explain her bill, which she framed as a measure that would “protect good jobs” and support businesses in such a way that would “reduce the cost of living” in cities where rent has skyrocketed in recent years.

“Local governments are requiring employers to pay more, and pay maybe more than what the market can allow, and we're requiring them to offer a certain amount of benefits,” she said, without providing examples (or agreeing to do so later) when questioned by Democratic colleagues.

“All that’s doing is driving up the cost of doing business, which ultimately ends on the consumer,” Esposito continued. “So if we want to reduce the cost of living, and we want to reduce the cost to the taxpayer, we need to make sure that we make decisions like this in order to keep our cost of living down.”

It was left unclear how keeping wages low would make rent more affordable; too bad Esposito chose not to show her math on that equation.

What she also didn’t mention was how long industry groups supporting the bill have been pushing for these kinds of labor protection rollbacks (at least 20 years, according to watchdog reporter Jason Garcia), or how they would directly affect workers who benefit from local living wage ordinances that establish wage floors that are at least $1 or $2 an hour higher than Florida’s state minimum wage of $12 an hour.

Esposito’s bill would preempt wage and labor standards to the state, meaning local governments wouldn’t be able to establish local policies for their communities that differ from state or federal law. She championed a similarly preemptive policy last year, backed by the real estate industry, that wiped out dozens of local tenant rights policies, including two local laws in Orange County.

When questioned by Democratic colleagues, Esposito failed to answer even basic questions regarding the scope of her proposal. For instance: How many working Floridians might stand to be affected? Or: How many existing local ordinances in Florida would be erased if her bill were to pass?

“There’s no data presented about how many Floridians across the state will be affected by this,” said Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, in her critique of the bill. Gantt estimated that 30,000 families in Miami-Dade County alone who are covered by a local living wage ordinance could be affected by the proposal, which has gained the backing of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and lobbying groups for largely non-union, low-wage employers like Walmart, McDonald’s and Publix.

Florida law already prohibits local governments from mandating a minimum wage or “employment benefits” (literally defined by the state as “anything of value”) for employees of private employers, and has done so for 20 years.

This bill would slash local communities’ ability to maintain any minimum wage higher than the state’s, and would renege on a compromise made back in 2003 that allowed local governments to require companies they directly contract with to pay their workers a living wage. That includes contracted workers at airports, city-owned venues and convention centers, for example. Union workers at Miami International Airport rallied in opposition to the proposed law last month.

Gantt expressed concern about how this could affect families in her South Florida district if the bill passed. “There is no indication that we have any ability to make sure that families can still put food on the table,” she said. “Businesses being able to do business easier is not more important than having [enough] to feed your children.”

Esposito skirted around the question of whether her legislation could cut the wages of workers who currently benefit from local wage laws. “Could wages go down? Maybe,” she admitted. “It’s up to the prerogative of the employer.”

Lobbyists for Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and Orange County (home to Orlando, which has a local living wage law on the books) all filed their opposition to the legislation. So did the League of Women Voters and a representative for the Teamsters labor union.

Representatives for labor groups including the Farmworker Association of Florida and social advocacy groups like Equality Florida and the Florida Housing Justice Alliance had signed up to speak — but were sidelined.

Supporters of the legislation include industry groups like the Florida Retail Federation, the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Home Builders Association, and Associated Builders and Contractors (who wrote a separate bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to legally work on roofs and scaffolding, jobs currently deemed too dangerous for minors, if passed).

The bill was approved by the House panel Thursday in a 9-4 vote along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Absent from the vote were two Democrats (Nixon and Silvers) and two Republicans (Maney and Shoaf).

The bill was originally filed as a measure that would prevent local communities from establishing mandatory heat exposure safety requirements, shortly after Miami-Dade County delayed a vote on a local law that would do as much. The bill was expanded to preempt a wider range of labor standards in early December.

As it exists today, HB 433 still needs approval from two more House panels before it would head to the House floor. Similar legislation proposed in the past has failed to reach the finish line, although it’s gotten close. The 60-day legislative session began Tuesday, Jan. 9, and will run through March 8.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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