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A proposal to establish a state commission to study wage discrimination worries business groups, which fear it could lead to a state minimum wage law. State Sen. Mandy Dawson, a liberal Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, filed the bill calling for an Equal Pay Commission for the upcoming 2002 legislative session. Dawson is a veteran legislator whose district includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. The commission would study how wage disparities affect women and minorities. Dawson’s bill is not expected to pass, but business groups fear that even its introduction would cast a light on pay disparities and that, in turn, could lead to a state law raising the state’s minimum wage above the $5.15 per hour federal requirement. “It’s like the camel getting his nose under the tent,” said Stephen Birtman, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Tallahassee. Rona Silberman, Dawson’s chief of staff, says the measure does not deal with minimum wage issues. “That’s not the intent of the bill at all. It’s to get equal pay for equal work,” she said. Dawson is traveling and could not be reached for comment. Florida is one of seven states that have no minimum wage law. Employers in Florida, like those in every state, must pay the federal minimum wage. Nine states, all on the West Coast or in the Northeast, mandate minimum pay greater than $5.15 an hour. Four states — Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas — set minimum wages below the federal level. Florida’s annual per capita wage income was 18 percent below the national average in 2000, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s “New Cornerstone” study on the state’s economic future. The same study also notes that in the 1990s Florida’s job growth was concentrated in lower-wage industries, “a situation that prevents the state’s goal to boost average income levels.” The chamber and its Boca Raton counterpart nevertheless are already on the record opposing Dawson’s bill. That appears to contradict pleas by business groups for work-force training programs. Every year, chambers and other private business organizations tout work force training programs as the foundation to lure higher-paying jobs to Florida. The Boca chamber, for example, backs Palm Beach Community College’s $4.7 million request from the state for a work force training facility. Dawson’s bill calls for a nine-member commission to be appointed by the secretary of Labor and Employment Security. The commission would determine whether women and men and minorities and nonminorities in the same jobs or jobs that require equivalent skills get paid different wages. From that information, the commission could prepare legislation to eliminate and prevent wage disparities. Dawson relies on Florida’s Civil Rights Act of 1992 as the backbone of her bill. That legislation makes it clear that wage discrimination is unlawful. Yet pay-scale disparities are a fact of life, businesswomen’s groups say. The National Federation of Business and Professional Women says, for example, that white women on average earn 28 percent less, or 72 cents to the dollar, compared with white men. “It’s worse for African-American women, who earn 63 cents to the dollar, and Hispanic women who earn 43 cents to the dollar,” said Nancy Hurlbert, the organization’s public policy chair for Florida. The new bill is a watered down version of Dawson’s first attempt at equal pay legislation in the 2001 session. The Fair Pay Act and its House version by state Rep. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, displeased business interests more because it presumed wage disparity and set civil penalties for businesses who paid employees differently for the same work. Dawson hopes the new measure will proceed more smoothly because, instead of presuming disparity, it sets out to investigate it. What particularly worries business this time is that the new measure was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Commerce and Economic Opportunities Committee on Tuesday. Legislators are in Tallahassee this week preparing the 2002 session, which convenes Jan. 22. “We’re ahead of the game already, because it’s going to be heard,” said Dawson chief of staff Silberman. Despite business worries about the bill, Silberman said no formal opposition to the bill has emerged. Nor was there any last year because the 2001 bill never came up at the committee level. That doesn’t mean, though, that business interests weren’t active. Real power in Tallahassee comes with the ability to keep a bill out of committee. “I’m sure they did it quietly,” Silberman said. The fair pay bill has gone nowhere because people don’t think there is a problem, says the Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women. “The task force is to show there is a problem and if we can prove that then we’ll go in with a fair pay bill for the 2003 session,” said Hurlbert, of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women. That the 2002 bill got moved to committee this time puts business on alert but doesn’t worry them much. “We’re not going to spend a lot of time on it, because it’s pretty weak,” said NFIB’s Birtman. Besides, legislators will be too busy this year with the Big Three: Redistricting, tax reform and the budget. “Anyone who thinks they’re going to spend a lot of time on other issues is deluding themselves,” Birtman said.

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