Minimum wage raise: More about timing than not doing it at all
As costs rise and salaries stay static or even take a dip in some instances, the city of Boulder is doing what it can to make the moves to ensure its citizenry can live a quality life.
Following Thursday’s Boulder County Board of Commissioners unanimous approval to raise the minimum wage to $15.69 in unannexed communities, it’s now up to Boulder to put in the work to do the same for the people of the biggest city in the county. The commissioners voted on additional increases each year that end with a $25-an-hour minimum wage in 2030.
Originally, the decision by city council members was to look into doing so in 2025, but a recent push forced a re-think of another vote – this one of 5-4 against – to maybe up the timeline and do so by January 1 of the upcoming New Year.
The idea may be the right one, but it wasn’t a practical one for many of the city’s business owners and thus the process will hopefully begin with a serious strategy to help increase families’ ability to close the margin between what they need and what they can afford.
Boulder mayor Aaron Brockett, who was re-elected Tuesday, has been in favor of raising the wage by 2024 and has settled with the potential of passing such an ordinance for the following year.
“We’re doing a public engagement process about that – engaging with stakeholders and doing some analysis of data,” Brockett said. “I am looking forward to that coming back next year so we can get some help to folks.”
Everyone interviewed for this piece agreed that the wage-cost-of-living gap is untenable for most families and the chasm continues to grow. That’s where the council hopes to do right for those who suffer as medical, housing, childcare, grocery, and utility costs – to name just a few – continue to increase at a rate that paychecks don’t.
“I’m very concerned about that which is why I was hoping to move forward earlier,” Brockett said of his earlier commitment to 2024. “The Emergency Family Assistance Association which deals with people who are low on food and rent payments is seeing an enormous amount of need in the community right now. They’re sounding the alarm bells about the levels of trouble that people are having to afford the cost of living here in our town.”
The COVID pandemic didn’t help things as small businesses and individuals struggled to make ends meet as the economy was handcuffed via job loss or furlough of hours.
“I do still see people coming together in the community,” Brockett said. “I mean, we have so many nonprofits who are working really, really hard on helping people and just the number of volunteers and activists and nonprofit workers out in the community. I get inspired by it all the time. I’m seeing a lot of people doing a lot of good work out there.
“Having a better acknowledgment that we’re in it together would be really, really good. More solidarity and support for each other absolutely would be very welcome.
Advanced cases of homelessness – which has also impacted a large number of Boulder students – and food insecurity continue to be an issue.
The issue with going against the early decision to discuss the 2025 target time and flirting with doing so a year earlier had more to do with flipping the switch on businesses that had to set their budgets and would suddenly have to revise the numbers with little time to spare.
“We’re gonna give people plenty of notice and state law allows us to raise our own minimum wages locally, it does have a cap of the amount you can raise it each year,” Brockett said. “I think that makes sure that it’s an amount that’s affordable for those small businesses and nonprofits. We do have to work with the stakeholders in those areas to make sure that these are changes that they can absorb. The modest increased levels that are allowed can work out.”
City councilwoman Tara Winer, also re-elected this week, understands the political pressure that would lead to a reconsideration of when to discuss the wage increase, but she was one who believed once 2025 was agreed upon it made no sense to turn around.
“It was back on the docket for the end of August and now we’re literally giving people who we said no to, that we’re changing our minds,” Winer said. “I thought about it and I really wanted to do 2024, but we had already said no to that. We had a lot of pushback and not just from restaurants who have to deal with that whole tip situation” More on that below.
“For the nonprofits that are with a shoestring budget, [going in 2024] would have made a big difference. Some of them were telling me they would have to lay off workers. I’m gonna work really hard for 2025. I already told the restaurants, do not come back to me and say no for 2025 because we’re already giving you a whole year to know that we’re gonna do this.”
Winer understands the pressure being applied but a promise is a promise. Winer was the deciding vote for 2025.
“It was really stressful for me because I really care about the people that were suffering,” Winer said. “I finally decided we can’t as a government just switch like this. It’s not right. Most of the people who work in Boulder get more than minimum wage, but it definitely affected some people. I’m not going to tell you it didn’t.
“If I’m re-elected, I’m absolutely gonna work to make sure that 2025 happens and that all the businesses are aware and prepared.”
Councilwoman Nicole Speer acknowledged the “unprecedented levels of need,” and expanded that raising the minimum wage is only part of the solution.
“I can’t speak to the county because they’re doing it, but here in the city, at least, people wanted to have a longer process that included economic analysis and thinking about the impact on businesses. The information that’s coming back next year will guide the next council’s decision on raising the minimum wage.
“If we were to move forward, there would probably be an ordinance later next summer, early fall that would raise the minimum wage to go into effect for January 1, 2025.”
The continued bump in wage-costs difference is usually exacerbated by crisis, and the pandemic was a major one. The potential increase was bandied about in 2020 before COVID hit.
“I understand not having a whole lot of extra time to work on it during that period, but now the reality is that every time we have a large economic crisis or sort of large crisis that has economic impacts, when we emerge from that, there seems to be even more income inequality than there was when we started,” Speer said. “You know, we’re seeing record levels of need that we’ve never seen before. Wages have not kept pace. This has been an ongoing issue that crises like COVID just seem to [increase].”
Speer’s main concern about waiting for 2025 is the damage that could be done as the issue’s slow burn toward an ordinance that can pay a few more bills for Boulder residents counts down.
“The thing that concerns me the most is that when their wages are nowhere near enough to keep up with the costs of meeting basic needs like shelter, food, energy, health care, transportation, what we see is increases in homelessness,” Speer said. “I understand that aspect of it. The affordability crisis that we’re dealing with in Boulder and in Boulder County cannot be solved by any one thing. We really need to be doing all the things and raising the minimum wage is one of those things that has to happen. Otherwise, we will continue to see increases in homelessness, in unsheltered homelessness, and the longer we have people who are living on our streets, the more likely it is that they’re going to be dealing with mental illness or addiction.”
Chamber of Commerce Senior Director of Policy Programs Jonathan Singer addressed the issues involving local restaurants and paying those who make tips and how a sudden change in the minimum wage date could have caused some serious consternation.
The tipped minimum wage in Colorado is lower than the norm, essentially making $2 less per hour.
“There are lots of different moving parts as it relates to what is a fair wage,” Singer said. “Many of the minimum wage workers who are currently working and are receiving this is what skews things a little bit. Many tipped minimum wage workers today might be making $10.63 per hour, but they’re actually making closer to $30 or $40 an hour when you count their tips. If you raise the tipped wage significantly, most restaurants are operating on very thin margins and their workers are making a lot more right now. So, what you might actually see is one of two things happening.
“You might see some restaurants have to close their doors or cut back hours or automate things. It’s cut hours or cut staff, which is what?”
Singer noted a study in Minneapolis where the minimum wage went up and restaurant workers were making more per hour but working fewer hours.
“Does this mean they’re gonna have to change our business model in a way that means that there will be fewer people working, which will actually exacerbate unemployment issues,” Singer said. “This is where it begs a larger conversation. Some restaurants are saying, ‘Well, maybe we’ll move away from a tipped wage situation If it goes up and just go with the state minimum wage.’”
The state and the City of Boulder minimum wage is $13.65 currently while the Federal mark is set at $7.25.
“Let’s ask economic experts what the full impacts are and then we can make an informed decision together,” Singer said.