By Anna Staver
County commissioners and city council members across Colorado are starting to ask themselves the same question: Should we consider raising our minimum wage?
"It's a new power," Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said. "It's not something that we've had to think about before."
State law blocked local governments from enacting their own minimum-wage laws for decades, but that changed Tuesday when Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1210. The new law gives cities and counties permission to set their own minimum wages starting in 2020. The new wages wouldn't take effect until January 2021.
That gives Davidson and the two other Summit County commissioners almost a year and a half to decide whether it's something they want to do. Davidson said that, ideally, he wants to work with the cities in his county such as Breckenridge and Silverthorne to see if they can all reach an agreement about whether to raise the minimum wage and, if so, by how much. And he wants to bring local businesses of all sizes into the conversation.
"Many businesses here have to start well above $12 an hour in order to get people willing to work for them," Davidson said.
At $11.10 per hour, Colorado already has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, but those who lobbied for local control are quick to point out a full-time employee making that in Denver, Aspen or Boulder qualifies for a range of government assistance programs, especially if that person is a single parent.
A single parent who lives in Denver with two small children needs to earn almost three times the current minimum wage to be considered "self-sufficient" or able to provide certain basic necessities without public or private assistance, according to a 2018 study by the left-leaning Colorado Center on Law and Policy. That number drops to $23 an hour for a single parent of two children who lives in Huerfano County, and a single person could theoretically be self-sufficient on less than Colorado's current minimum wage.
"I think the next move is to make the bill mean something," said Robel Worku, a community organizer who worked on both the campaign to raise the state minimum wage in 2016 and this bill.
Worku, who works for Colorado People's Alliance, went on to say that means deciding which cities and counties to lobby first.
Denver and Boulder are obvious choices.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock raised the minimum wage for city employees and contractors to $15 an hour this year and signaled a willingness to do the same for the private sector. He testified on behalf of the bill and attended Tuesday's bill signing. Boulder also has increased what it pays its employees, and Mayor Suzanne Jones said removing the state pre-emption was one of the city's legislative goals for 2019.
"We're focused on ensuring a sustainable wage for more of our contractors," Jones said. "I imagine that the next council (who will be seated after November) will want to have a deeper discussion around minimum wage across the board."
There are limits on what local governments can pass under this new law. Cities and counties can't increase their minimum wages by more than 15 percent per year. And they have to time it to coincide with the annual increases in the state minimum wage, which happen in January.
Those limits weren't enough to win the support of Republicans in Colorado's House or Senate, and they weren't enough to get the business community behind the change either.
"Allowing 64 counties and 272 municipalities the ability to set their own minimum wage for employers in their jurisdiction is going to cause a ridiculous amount of complications for businesses," Colorado Chamber Senior Vice President Loren Furman said at a House committee meeting in March.
Furman also raised a concern about employees flocking to certain cities with higher wages, making it harder for neighboring cities and rural communities to compete.
Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, also has concerns about whether businesses will simply raise prices or cut hours to cover increases to their payrolls.
"This legislative prescription will not treat the malady, and will most likely make it worse," Tate said.
Seattle, which has the highest minimum wage in the country at $16 per hour, has seen a modest reduction in hours worked, according to a study by the University of Washington. However, those researchers also found that the overall pay for low-wage employees increased ever so slightly.
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