Published in Longmont Times-Call and Boulder Camera
February 11, 2020
Leaders prefer regional hike
Officials want to convene ‘local wage working group’
By Sam Lounsberry, Staff Writer
Boulder City Council last month made it a priority to raise the minimum wage within city limits, and at the council’s meeting with Boulder County Commissioners on Monday, leaders said a regional increase offers advantages to municipal action.
While the minimum wage in the state rose for 2020 to $12 an hour, and $8.98 an hour for tipped employees, a Colorado law passed last year allows local governments to further hike the minimum wages. But it also limited how many minimum wage increases can take place across the state. No more than 10% of local governments can enact minimum wage laws, meaning that once that threshold has been hit, a city or county that seeks to do so would have to wait for state lawmakers to amend the law and increase the cap.
Councilman Adam Swetlik said that having the county as a whole, instead of each of its cities sepa- rately, increase its minimum wage across its borders would count as only one entity toward that 10% cap. Officials are set to start examining the process this spring, with the assembly of a “local wage working group” that would advise public officials on a potential minimum wage increase.
City and council officials envision the group including representatives from chambers of commerce within the county, the Colorado Restaurant Association and the hospitality industry, as well as childcare providers, school districts, the University of Colorado, unions and local governments. “If we can figure this out all together, that would reduce complaints that this affects business competition, because everyone would be playing by the same rules individually and it would only take one bite out of the apple that the Legislature had laid out for us,” Swetlik said.
The regional approach is also preferred by restaurants, but an increase in minimum wages is still likely to hit the bottom lines of businesses, result in a rise in prices or both, according to business leaders. “It is very challenging when a restaurant in one area has to pay a higher wage than another one two minutes down the street. They are forced to increase prices, giving them a competitive disadvantage,” Colorado Restaurant Association President and CEO Sonia Riggs said in an email.
Riggs added the organization prefers a statewide approach over a patchwork of varying minimum wages across Colorado, but that a countywide increase is better than a city by city change. “Another important point for us is that any city or county looking to increase minimum wage should do so slowly, in order to give time for businesses to adjust,” Riggs said. “These increases are particularly difficult for our industry, as 95 to 97 cents of every dollar coming in is spent on the people, the place and the food. With such small margins, any increase in cost is a challenge.”
To justify looking into a boosted local minimum wage, Swetlik also cited recently publicized research that found an increase in the lowest legal pay rate could decrease suicide rates. “Looking at health and safety as leaders of the county, the minimum wage is a good place to look,” Swetlik said.
Increases in the minimum wage above the statewide floor also could have an impact on Boulder County’s organic farmers, who have a greater need for labor than some of their counterparts in conventional agriculture using heavier machinery and technology to limit manual work. “My first thought is that the minimum wage issue is complicated one,” Boulder County Farmer’s Market leader Brian Coppom said in interview. “First, all of our farmers would like to see their workers making a living wage. Second, people already complain about the costs of growing food, and a livable minimum wage will increase the cost of growing food.”
He urges residents to reexamine how they evaluate the monetary cost of consuming food against the consequences of local expectations for relatively inexpensive food from other places in the world that do not enforce labor laws as stringent as the United States. “(Greater minimum wages) will likely cause people to think that locally grown food is too expensive, because rather than having someone local on a living wage growing it, they can buy it from a country where there is no such thing as a living wage,” Coppom said. “To shift the paradigm, it really takes some education of the what true cost of the products we consume really is, in terms of social impact, environmental impact.”