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Lawmakers Shop For Groceries On Minimum-Wage Budget

Grocery shoppers
Jessica Palombo

Bills raising Florida’s minimum wage were assigned to committees but never heard after South Florida Democrats filed them this session. But that didn’t stop several lawmakers from trying to highlight how hard it is to shop on a tight budget by making a grocery run in Tallahassee this morning.

Oscar Rivera says when he goes to the grocery store, he only gets the basics. Bread. Milk. Chicken. The 23-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant says the paycheck he brings home from a Miami fast food restaurant doesn’t leave room for extras. So looking around the store, he says he often thinks things like “'Oh! I like that!' Or 'It looks delicious." Or 'It looks good. I want to buy it,' but when I see the price, oh my goodness, I cannot buy that,” he says.

The items most often tempting him to break his budget are fruits, vegetables and “healthy bread,” he says.

Rivera works part-time at Wendy’s for the state minimum wage of $7.93 per hour. His sister works part-time for minimum wage at a shoe store. His mom’s a bus driver. And the family receives food stamps equaling $180 per month, he says. But even with the government assistance, he says they’ve gone without a car and don’t have health insurance.

“Two years ago, I was trying to go to the doctor, but I couldn’t afford that because the bill was expensive, so I couldn’t continue with that medicine, with that treatment,” he recalls.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rivera is one of almost 200,000 Floridians earning equal to or less than minimum wage.  President Barack Obama and Democratic officials across the country have been pushing to raise the federal minimum to $10.10—up from $7.25.

In Florida, Sen. Dwight Bullard (D-Miami) and Rep. Cynthia Stafford (D-Opa Locka) filed bills doing the same. They and a handful of other Democrats pushed shopping carts through a Tallahassee grocery store Wednesday.

“We passed by the mayonnaise and the ketchup and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t afford it individually, but if you buy one then I’ll come over to your house and borrow the ketchup,” Stafford says, explaining how they strategized to stay within the $45 budget they’d set for a hypothetical week.

Outside the store, Bullard says he sympathizes with minimum-wage workers trying to support families.

“To have to go through this each and every week trying manage your money and—not to mention any sort of outside expenses that pop up. God forbid you have children and they want to go on a fieldtrip,” he says.

Some said the shopping trip was “eye opening” compared with what they’re used to. For one, Rep. Clovis Watson (D-Gainesville) noted the incongruity of his Coach brand wallet as he carried out a pared-down version of his usual grocery haul. No Del Monte steaks today, he says, looking in his bags.

“I stayed within budget but I think I may be back before week’s out,” he says. “I looked at what I normally get and it would have been for one day of my budget if I had gotten what I normally get.”

Democrats say raising the minimum wage would bring people out of poverty and improve local economies where they’d be spending the additional income. But data from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office suggests employers would fire people or reduce hours if they had to drastically increase wages in a single year. And Republican Gov. Rick Scott has said he opposes the raise.

But Service Employees International Union political director Ron Bilbao says Wednesday’s shopping trip is meant to show workers someone tried on their behalf.

“We want people to know that the bills are there and that it’s leadership that refuses to bring the issue forward,” he says. “And we want there to be some sort of action. I mean, it’s up to the leadership to do the right thing. They still have time. They can do anything that they want to if it was a priority for them.”

But the chances of that are just about zero. The committees to which Bullard’s and Stafford’s bills have been assigned are not scheduled to meet again this session. 


Corrected: the original version of this story said Florida's minimum wage is $7.79.