Republican politicians in Florida have been on a rampage against ex-felons and workers in the state over the past few years. Newest in the lineup is a horrific proposal made by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. The proposal would allow businesses to underpay those convicted of a felony, those under the age of 21, and those who are “hard to hire.”
This is an egregious bill for a number of reasons but looks especially poor when paired with the Republican implemented poll tax required for those same felons to get their fundamental rights back. This bill will make that even more difficult.
State officials have also continued to use prison labor, and from the outside, it looks like they have gotten a taste for cheap, unregulated labor from Floridians who have served their time. This continued targeting of current and released prisoners is harassment, especially in the face of continued referendums voted and passed by the citizens that are supposed to lighten the burden on ex-felons and start to dismantle the mass incarceration state.
On another note, Brandes is lying about companies struggling to hire felons and is under-evaluating their value. Even conservative researchers employed by the Charles Koch Institute found that “82% of managers…feel that the “quality of hire” for workers with criminal records is as high as or higher than that for workers without records.” Knowing this, Republicans are targeting ex-felons for simply trying to make a living.
Why should ex-felons, who are as effective as workers who are not ex-felons, be paid less for the same amount of work? Who is Brandes to devalue an entire population’s productivity because of their label?
While it is clear that Brandes is attempting to further the class divide in Florida, make no mistake, this could also contribute to the already rampant systemic racism. Black Americans are routinely over-policed across the country, and Florida is no exception. Because of this and because of existing systems of poverty and lack of educational resources, African Americans make up a huge portion of the felon population. In Florida, over 20% of Black men are convicted felons (higher than the U.S. average of 15%). On top of this, African American households in Florida made over $20,000 less on average than white households.
The effect of this legislation will be the continual entrapment of Black Floridians in cycles of poverty, lack of education, lack of resources, over-policing, prison labor and then underpaid labor. This alone should be enough to stop it in its tracks.
Beyond the issue of systemic racism, this proposal is just plain bad for working-class Americans of any race. By creating an even further divide between low-wage workers, it would be making it harder to collectively bargain. This would be making it harder to create unified goals like wage hikes and creates unclear wording in the legislature that would foster far too much instability in the protection of wage growth and labor rights.
The proposal also makes it possible that those under 21 and the ambiguous group of people that are “too hard to hire” receive lower wages. Who is classified as “hard to hire”? That is unclear. What is this wage? This is also unclear and Brandes did not specify. However, it is safe to say it will be a poverty wage as the current minimum wage is already unsustainable.
This bill is an attack on labor rights, equity and the Florida voter. Every citizen of the state of Florida needs to ask themselves, what is the point in voting for higher wages if the legislation is going to be stripped down and used against those same voters?
There is now a clear pattern of disrespect. Our politicians should be fighting to reverse systemic issues that have come to light in the last year. Instead, politicians like Brandes are lining their own pockets with donations from conservatives and business owners who would benefit from lower wages and increased profits and are pushing the issue of inequality further and further into an irreparable state.
We cannot allow this blatant disregard for our fellow Floridians to continue, and we must make it clear that actions that directly contradict our voices will have electoral consequences.
Featured Image: Florida Capitol Building. Unmodified Photo by Michael Rivera used under a Creative Commons License. (https://bit.ly/3r7OXq4)
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