Meet the rich personal injury lawyer who is pouring millions into an effort to get a $15 minimum wage on Florida's ballot

Key Points
  • Personal-injury lawyer John Morgan has spent millions in a push to get a $15 per hour minimum wage measure on the ballot in swing state Florida in 2020.
  • Morgan, who said he would "rather have bamboo shoots stuck up [his] fingertips" than run for political office, considers the pay floor a "moral, ethical and religious issue" rather than a political one.
  • Amid growing concerns that working class pay has not kept pace with costs of living, seven states and Washington, D.C., have voted to boost their minimum wages to $15 per hour.
Attorney John Morgan.
Alex Menendez | AP

States across the country have voted to hike their minimum wages to $15 per hour. A prominent lawyer is piling millions of dollars into a push to make Florida the next one.

Frustrated by the state government's inaction to raise the pay floor, John Morgan has pushed to get a $15 minimum wage measure on Florida's ballot in 2020. He has already gathered the 766,200 signatures needed to let voters decide whether to raise the wage next year. Now, the Orlando-based personal injury attorney waits on the state Supreme Court to decide if it ends up on the ballot in the battleground state.

Morgan, who alongside his wife, Ultima, runs a firm that employs more than 500 lawyers, has enjoyed ballot success in the past. He piled money into a successful 2016 ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana. He estimates he has already spent $5 million to $7 million on the minimum wage push.

Morgan's effort to boost wages could have a massive effect in the third-most populous state in the country. The colorful lawyer, who said he would "rather have bamboo shoots stuck up [his] fingertips" than run for political office, considers the pay floor a "moral, ethical and religious issue" rather than a political one.

The 63-year-old said he decided to pursue the minimum wage measure when considering what else made him "hurt" after the marijuana initiative's passage.

"And what makes me hurt the most is watching other people hurt," Morgan said in a phone interview. "And I don't think that politicians really give a f---, really give a f---, about other people hurting. They really just care about their next election."

Amid growing concerns that working class pay has not kept pace with costs of living, seven states and Washington, D.C., have voted to boost their minimum wages to $15 per hour. The federal pay floor sits at $7.25 an hour — a level from which it has not budged in a decade. The Democratic-held House — including all Democratic representatives from Florida and one Republican from the state — approved a $15 U.S. minimum wage earlier this year, but the GOP-held Senate has not taken up the bill.

People gather together to ask the McDonald’s corporation to raise workers wages to a $15 minimum wage as well as demanding the right to a union on May 23, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Wage growth adjusted for inflation has picked up in recent months after a period of sluggishness. In August, real average hourly earnings rose 1.5% from the previous year, seasonally adjusted.

Florida sits among the 29 states and D.C. with a pay floor higher than the federal level. The state's minimum wage rose to $8.46 at the beginning of the year based on an annual cost of living adjustment passed by ballot measure in 2004. Critics say the increases have not gone far enough: Morgan argues current laws allow businesses to pay "slave wages."

His initiative, which would need 60% support to pass, would first hike the pay floor to $10 an hour in September 2021. Subsequent $1 increases every year would push it to $15 an hour by 2026. It would then rise along with inflation.

Key business groups in Florida have started to line up against the $15 per hour minimum wage initiative. In a state where the leisure and hospitality industry employs more than 1.2 million people, hotel and restaurant groups in particular have warned the pay floor could lead to lost service jobs.

"The people they are trying to help we believe will get hurt with this particular ballot initiative," said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

She also raised the prospect of businesses passing costs on to customers and questioned how much consumers would tolerate.

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A public opinion poll on the issue also poses questions about whether it could pass.

Florida voters overwhelmingly back a minimum wage increase, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in July. About three-quarters — or 76% — of respondents said they backed a pay floor hike, versus only 20% who said they did not.

Asked another way, 43% of voters support raising the wage but to less than $15 per hour. Meanwhile, a combined 45% of voters say they either back raising the wage to $15 an hour or a higher level.

But Morgan needs to clear another hurdle before voters even face a choice on the minimum wage. The Florida Supreme Court has to notify him by Feb. 1 whether the initiative will even make the ballot.

A spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court declined to say when the court could issue an opinion on the ballot measure.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran former President Barack Obama's 2008 Florida campaign, said he has "absolutely no doubt" Morgan will get the initiative on the ballot. Schale has known Morgan for roughly a decade through Florida politics.

"People count out John Morgan at their own peril. He's relentless and tireless," he said.

Schale believes the measure has a good chance of passing in 2020. However, he said he doubts it would affect turnout in the swing state — which has played a key role in the outcomes of most recent presidential elections.

He notes recent elections have not necessarily reflected expectations of which voters would turn out with a certain measure on the ballot. In 2016, Florida approved medical marijuana — a position generally more associated with Democrats — as Trump won the state.

Another proposal more closely tied to Democrats — restoring voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences — passed in Florida last year as Republicans scored key gubernatorial and Senate election victories.

At the moment, Morgan thinks the measure has about a 50% chance of passing. He believes it will pose a bigger challenge than getting the marijuana proposal passed in 2016.

The lawyer argues Florida needs a pay hike in part because many minimum wage workers still have to rely on public assistance. Another $15 minimum wage supporter in the state, Florida State economics and African American studies professor Patrick Mason, described it as companies "using government programs to subsidize their wage payments."

Morgan also plans to make a moral, religious case for giving workers a raise. He cast it in terms of "dignity" for low-wage workers.

Morgan acknowledges he is not a "religious nut." He calls himself a "most imperfect person" and an "absolute hard-drinking hellraiser."

But because he considers it a moral obligation to help people in his state, Morgan thinks his push for a $15 minimum wage will be worth it — even if he pours millions of dollars into it and loses.

"I don't worry about losing because in my world if I lose, God doesn't think I lost," he said. "He just thinks I tried and that's all he wants me to do."

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