Colorado Amendment 70 draws mixed feelings on Western Slope
Feelings toward a constitutional amendment that would raise Colorado’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 vary depending on where you are on the Western Slope.
For some it is a step in the right direction; for others it’s a misguided attempt at addressing economic divisions.
The minimum wage issue — Amendment 70 on the November ballot — has its supporters and opponents. In the resort communities that dot the western half of the state, the question is largely viewed as less pertinent.
“In Glenwood Springs our minimum wage is higher” than the rate proposed in Amendment 70, Marianne Virgili, president and CEO of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association said. “We do pay a higher wage than other parts of the state, so I don’t know if that issue is as big a concern for us.”
The chamber has staked a position on other ballot questions, but it is not issuing a formal position on Amendment 70.
Although Glenwood Springs has the same legal minimum wage as the state’s current $8.31, the general thought is that the higher cost of living in resort communities necessitates higher wages in order to attract and keep quality employees, Virgili said.
Less than 30 miles west on Interstate 70 it is a different story.
“I haven’t talked with anyone who is excited about it or that thought it was the right move,” Grady Hazelton, owner of WingNutz Bar and Grill in Rifle, said regarding conversations with other small business owners. “I really feel it’s going to be counterproductive in what they’re trying to accomplish.”
An email seeking feedback on Amendment 70 distributed by the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce found that about one-third of the 21 businesses that responded supported the minimum wage increase. The rest were opposed and largely said that markets, not the government, should dictate how much employers pay. One-third of the responding businesses said they would likely be forced to close their doors if Amendment 70 passes.
While the Rifle area chamber has not taken a stance on the minimum wage issue, those in other Western Slope communities, including the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and the Craig Chamber of Commerce, are opposing the minimum wage proposal, as is Club 20 — the primary advocacy group for western Colorado.
Job creator or killer?
Amendment 70 would amend the state’s constitution to set the minimum wage at $9.30 per hour in 2017 with annual increases of 90 cents each year until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. From there it would be increased annually for cost-of-living adjustments.
For tipped workers, employers can continue to pay $3.02 per hour less than the minimum wage rate, meaning the current tip rate of $5.29 will increase to $8.98 by 2020.
The amendment is largely backed by Colorado Families For A Fair Wage, a committee that describes itself as, “A coalition of small business owners, community partners, working families and faith organizations working together to help build a fair economy for all Coloradans.”
Amendment 70 supporters cite the inability to live on the current minimum wage, which comes out to less than $300 per week after taxes.
“Colorado’s minimum wage falls so short of the actual cost of living that many full-time workers have to rely on government assistance,” Colorado Families For A Fair Wage states in a fact sheet.
The group argues that boosting the minimum wage would not only help further economic equality but also could boost the state’s economy.
On the opposite side, Keep Colorado Working, a committee that counts the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry as part of its “coalition,” argues Amendment 70 will eliminate thousands of jobs and be particularly detrimental to small businesses and rural regions of the state.
Opponents point to a study commissioned by Common Sense Policy Roundtable that concluded a fully implemented minimum wage increase would “reduce Colorado’s total employment by as much as 90,000.”
Fairness vs. feasibility
Fore nearly 13 years Laurie Raymond has been a small business owner, running High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters Inc. in Glenwood Springs.
During that time, Raymond said she has made it a point to try to pay her few employees as much as she can while ensuring the business remains profitable.
“I’ve never paid my lowest-paid employees minimum wage,” she said.
Currently Raymond has five employees, one of whom works on commission. Two of her employees are high school students, and one makes $10 per hour while the other makes $10.75. Her other two employees get a wage that comes out to about $15 per hour, which is slightly more than what Raymond pays herself.
“Philosophically, I want to pay people as well as I can,” said Raymond, who supports Amendment 70. While the minimum wage increase will likely fall short of solving what Raymond called the deepening class stratification taking place in the region and Colorado, it could be a first step.
“Fairness just demands that we look really hard at what our short-term view of the need to grow and be profitable does to our communities and the workforce as a whole … even if it entails a little bit of sacrifice,” Raymond said. “Even Henry Ford … realized that it didn’t make sense to have a workforce that couldn’t afford the product he was selling.”
For Hazelton at WingNutz, who frequently donates to nonprofits and charitable efforts, it is not a matter of greed. And unlike some of the more extreme remarks, he said passage of Amendment 70 would not force him to close his business.
However, it would assuredly mean fewer hours for employees and less opportunities for less-skilled workers. The minimum wage allows room for raises, which provides an incentive to stay with the business, he said, adding that his employees who have stuck with him are well above the minimum wage.
The bottom line is that if payroll expenses go up something will need to be done.
“It’s not just from a selfish standpoint,” he said. “We have a pretty slim margin in the restaurant business. You can see it in who stays open and who doesn’t.”
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