Broward County commissioners voted Tuesday to raise the county’s living wage, a breakthrough in a year-long process to improve workers' pay.
The rise in the base wage from $12.38 to $13.27 per hour could apply to thousands of employees who work for companies that contract with the county. After initial concerns over how the increase would affect existing county contracts, the commission agreed to give employers until April to meet the new minimum wage.
Still commissioners remain deadlocked over how much the county should force employers to pay toward workers’ health insurance. The commission has now debated the issue over several months, but made little headway on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how much longer we want to drag this out for,” said Vice Mayor Dale Holness, who disagreed with the commission’s decision to delay a vote on the issue until January. “It’s about time that we do something. I can tell you that the employees want to know some certainty as to where we’re going.”
Contracted workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades want the health insurance requirement to equal at least that of Miami-Dade—$3.16 per hour. They note that Broward gives its own public employees $3.44 per hour to buy their own health insurance.
Holeness, commissioners Nan Rich and Beam Furr and Mayor Mark Bogen have said the increase is necessary to make Broward more hospitable for workers. They agree employees cannot buy decent health insurance at the current rate of the requirement, $1.60 per hour.
But at least four other commissioners, including Steve Geller, Barbara Sharief and Tim Ryan, continue to express concerns about the impact of the health insurance increase. They have considered waiting two years to raise the requirement to about $2.90. A higher rate could hurt Broward’s economy and lead to increased ticket and service prices at the airport, Sharief has warned.
The debate on the issue Tuesday dragged on for about three hours with commissioners considering a handful of different motions that could move the process along. Holness repeatedly said there are enough votes to pass the steeper increase. But opponents pushed back, saying the commission has to study the health insurance requirement more before moving forward.
"We really need to decide whether we're going to increase it incrementally or jump right into it two years from now," said Ryan, who wanted the commission to hold a workshop to learn more about the issue. "Why this rush when we have this complicated issue? I just can't figure it out."
Despite the impasse over the health insurance requirement, the new wage increase was a step forward to improve workers' pay.
Under the new wage law, all county contracts with private companies beginning in 2019 will guarantee the increased wage. Companies that are already under contract with Broward will have to meet the minimum by April. If they don’t, the commission could opt to terminate their contracts.
"You want to try to make it as fair for everybody," Rich said after the vote, noting that the county may have to pay contractors more to make up for the wage increase. "It would depend on the impact" the raise has on the company.
WLRN's efforts to reach representatives of multiple contracted companies were unsuccessful.
After Tuesday's meeting, workers in the audience expressed mixed feelings about the commission's efforts to improve their pay. They were disappointed about the disagreement over the county’s health insurance requirement, but said the nearly 90 cent wage increase will be beneficial over time.
Lowrandy Demas is a cashier at the Fort Lauderdale airport for the food company Delaware North. She said the raise will help her send money to her family in Haiti.
“I’m hopeful that they keep their word,” Demas said of the commission’s plan to potentially terminate the existing contracts. “We’re fighters. We’re going to keep coming until we get what we deserve.”