When Maria Puentes stopped working at the La Maracucha Food Truck she owns with her husband, Eros Puentes, he was left with only two other employees.
Maria now stays at home with the couple’s 2-year-old son. He can no longer attend daycare after continuing to get sick, and the cost of about $1,200 a month became too high.
“The fact that she’s not here, it’s way harder,” Eros said. “Way harder.”
Florida is a hub for small businesses, and the Puentes’ is one of 2.5 million reported in the state last year. Now, small businesses in the Gainesville area are navigating the minimum wage spike that became effective Sept. 30.
The increase to $10 an hour was approved on Nov. 3, 2020, after 60.82% of voters voted for Florida Amendment 2, or the $15 Minimum Wage Initiative. The minimum wage will rise by another dollar every year until 2026 when it reaches $15.
Puentes said one of his employees is leaving soon to work for a higher paying job, which means he needs to hire at least two more people. Hiring even one new employee has proven difficult.
“Even if we were willing to pay more than $10, people want like $20,” he said.
Puentes pays $13 an hour, but this doesn’t compete with bigger corporations that can offer more. He said he can’t afford to increase his employees’ pay because the cost of ingredients has skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s not a single item that didn’t go up,” he said. “Butter, oil, meat, flour, everything.”
Puentes said he had no choice but to raise menu item prices, which he may have to do again if he hopes to secure two new employees.
“I’ll have to raise the prices like everybody else will have to do,” he said. “There’s no other way to do it.”
Not all local businesses see the change as a setback. Ryan Strandjord, who co-owns Plantology, a vegan restaurant planted at Midpoint Park and Eatery, said while he’s a proponent of moving to $15 an hour, the economy requires restructuring.
“A lot of mom-and-pop shops are going to suffer big time, whereas places like Walmart are going to be totally fine,” he said.
The change hopefully signals an end to labor exploitation not only in Florida, but across the nation, Strandjord said – especially as most of the wealth remains in the hands of a few.
“The top 1, 2%, they’re sitting on more money than anybody should ever have,” he said. “That bubble needs to burst.”
One of Strandjord’s employees, Lola Myers, understands the struggle of making ends meet when earning minimum wage. Before starting in her position as a cook at Plantology, she worked as a hostess where she barely made enough to get by, even with tips.
The 21-year-old is a senior at the University of Florida majoring in sustainability studies and environmental science, and she works to have enough money to pay for things such as healthy food.
“It just kind of sucks to be told you’re not worth it, even $10 an hour, as an employee,” she said. “Especially when you need that job to survive.”
Some small business owners argue the increase isn’t enough.
Amanda Bowers, the owner of BakerBaker, a family-run bakery at Gainesville’s 4th Ave Food Park, said the path to $15 an hour should be shorter.
“I wish it would get down to everyone a lot faster than they’re rolling it out,” she said. “But I understand that there are businesses that are going to struggle with that, and they need some time to implement price changes.”
The business began in 2010, and Bowers said the brick-and-mortar bakery opened at the food park in 2015. She’s committed to paying all her employees a living wage since starting more than a decade ago.
Currently, every employee starts at $15 an hour, and it goes up from there.
“I don’t think you can live on less, especially in Gainesville,” she said.
Bowers brainstorms with other business owners in the food park about ways to provide benefits beyond substantial wages, such as health insurance and gym memberships.
The baked goods she provides, which range from lemon loaves to morning rolls, experienced a price change for the first time about three months ago to accommodate swells in ingredient costs.
Demand hasn’t wavered, however.
“Not a single person out there that we encounter in our customer base has ever looked at me twice when I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to raise my prices, my costs have gone up or I need to pay my people more,’” she said. “They’ve always been very responsive and supportive.”
The next minimum wage surge is set for Sept. 30, 2022, and will go from $10 to $11 an hour.