Natacha Seijas, the former Miami-Dade commissioner who championed ordinances creating a local "living wage" and preventing wage theft, took Florida lawmakers to task Thursday for considering legislation that would force counties to repeal those laws and ban them from enacting them in the future.
Seijas, a Republican, leveled particularly pointed attacks at Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, who has filed a bill, HB 181, that would prohibit local governments from imposing minimum-wage or health-benefit requirements on contractors hired for public works projects.
"Rep. Van Zant from Palatka doesn't think we need any local wage ordinances. Well, God bless Rep. Van Zant," Seijas said, pointing to Van Zant's legislative biography, which says he earned a doctorate in theology from the Western Baptist Theological Seminary in Havana from 1999 to 2001. "He probably thinks everybody in Miami-Dade County should live in poverty just like all those people he saw in communist Cuba."
She was joined in a news conference on the steps of downtown Miami's historic civil courthouse by former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, and union workers. Martinez also mentioned Van Zant.
"I don't know how many of you have been to Palatka -- I've been to Palatka," Martinez said. "Palatka happens to be one of the poorest cities in the state of Florida."
Miami-Dade, whose home-rule charter give it special powers from the state, has three policies that would be preempted by several Tallahassee bills pushed by lawmakers calling for statewide uniformity on wage-related issues. Similar laws exist in Broward and Palm Beach, and in cities such as Miami Beach, Orlando and Gainesville.
The Miami-Dade laws require major contractors to offer a minimum wage higher than the one set by the federal government and offer their employees health insurance, and to provide victims of domestic violence up to 30 days off without pay to get their lives in order. The county also gives employees who have not been paid for their work a venue to denounce their employers for wage theft.
"Quit stepping on our toes. Stop meddling in our local affairs," Seijas said. "You have plenty to do in fixing the state of Florida."
Added Martinez: "They don't have the right to dictate to Dade County what we should be doing."
Seijas adopted the slogan from Republican Gov. Rick Scott's state-of-the-state address earlier this week: "It's working."
"Ask the families of the construction workers about the responsible-wage ordinance, and they'll tell you, 'It's working,'" she said at a Thursday morning news conference in front of downtown Miami's historic civil courthouse. "Ask any of the victims of domestic violence, and they will tell you, 'It's working.'"
Seijas and Martinez's joint effort was coordinated by South Florida Jobs with Justice, a pro-union nonprofit. Its governmental affairs director, Fred Frost, blasted the state Capitol's business establishment -- including the Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Associated Industries of Florida -- for backing the proposed state legislation.
Frost stood next to placards listing the names and phone numbers of lawmakers whose committees are set to consider HB 655, sponsored by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando. Behind him, a cluster of workers held signs that read "Living wages help keep workers out of poverty" and "Tallahassee lawmakers: stop undermining our local government."
"Something stinks in Tallahassee," Frost said. "Even though it's 500 miles away, we smell it."