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Fight for $15 activists storm Pinellas Legislative Delegation meeting

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A dozen community activists and low wage workers saturated the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation meeting Tuesday at USF St. Pete with pleas to increase the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour. The speakers represented more than a third of those scheduled to address the delegation.

Mimi Hopkins was first to speak. She’s 28 years old and has never taken a vacation. Instead, she uses what ever paid time off she gets from her minimum wage job to work overtime at another minimum wage job “just to make ends meet.”

Hopkins didn’t get 30 seconds into her comments before breaking down into tears.

She explained how she’s always worked two to three jobs at a time since she started working as a teen. She described the tough decisions she’s had to make like paying the rent, but having to go without gas in her car. Like putting gas in her car, but not eating.

And she’s trying to do better.

“I’m a student,” Hopkins said. “Why should I have to work two to three jobs?”

Because Hopkins doesn’t have kids and puts in extra hours across multiple employers she technically makes too much money to qualify for assistance paying for school. So on top of barely scraping by, Hopkins is wracking up student loan debt as she traverses the slow road toward getting a degree.

Her story prompted hoots and hollers from the crown packed with Fight for $15 supporters – the name of the movement Hopkins is backing.

Democrats in the delegation – and only Democrats – took notice.

State Representatives Darryl Rouson and Dwight Dudley both took the Fight for $15 challenge. For five days they lived on just $17 a day.

“The eight minute drive from my home to my office took [nearly an hour and a half] on two buses,” Rouson said of the trouble he found trying to mimic what it would be like to live on minimum wage.

Dudley told Hopkins he would support people like her in the legislature despite an unfavorable environment. The uber-conservative legislature isn’t likely to get behind any minimum wage increase, let alone one that nearly doubles it.

But it was Senator Arthenia Joyner who perhaps offered the most support for the fight. She didn’t take the challenge because, as she put it, she knew she couldn’t do it.

“None of us have walked in your shoes,” Joyner said. “The best way for me to help is to fight in Tallahassee.”

The rest of the delegation, all Republicans, sat in silence. Because Hopkins went over her allotted time to speak, someone began sounding an alarm from their phone when time was up. Instead of a friendly chime like speakers hear at other public meetings, the sound was instead an ominous siren sounding off what people could have mistaken as an air raid signal.

When people talk about minimum wage workers, it tends to evoke images of down-trodden workers or high school students flipping burgers or asking if you’d like fries with that.

But several speakers painted a different picture. Dr. Howard Johnston is a professor emeritus in USF’s College of Education. He pointed out that adjunct professors are grossly underpaid.

“We have begun to exploit, at record levels, the use of adjunct professors,” Johnston said.

He said about half of the instructors at colleges and universities are adjunct professors and about 80 percent of instructors at Community Colleges are part time adjunct faculty.

The result, Johnston explained, is lower graduation rates. The two don’t seem to immediately have anything to do with one another, but they are inextricably linked. Because adjunct faculty are paid far less than full-time professors and work only part-time, they often take on multiple assignments at different schools. That leaves them with little time to meet with students.

And then there are childcare workers. Dayla Mikell does what she loves. She asked lawmakers to imagine what it would be like to work in a profession you’re passionate about but know “the wages will never be enough for the work that you do.”

That’s the position she’s in.

“I shape and mold the minds of our youth,” she said as her voice cracked.

The push to local lawmakers came the same day minimum and low wage workers across the country were walking off the job in strike demanding living wages and the right to form a union.

In all, 270 cities are participating in a national day of action supporting Fight for $15. Early Tuesday morning, workers at the McDonald’s on 62nd Avenue North and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Pete workers left their posts as supporters gathered with signs.

Later in the afternoon the group planned to rally in Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa.

While the movement isn’t likely to gain enough support in the Florida Legislature to further action, it is gaining traction across the nation.

President Barack Obama supports a minimum wage increase to $10.10. So too does presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton. Bernie Sanders who is going strong in the polls against Clinton, supports the $15 minimum wage.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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