Summit County looks ready to increase minimum wage by 75 cents per hour each year starting in 2021
FRISCO — After six meetings over three months, Summit County government has wrapped up its minimum wage work group process to gather information and consensus on whether the county and towns should establish a local minimum wage.
At Tuesday’s Summit Board of County Commissioners work session, County Manager Scott Vargo presented the commissioners with the findings and recommendations produced from the work group.
Vargo first laid out the background of the work group process. In September 2019, the county commissioners abandoned an effort to put a nonbinding advisory question on the November 2019 ballot that would have asked voters whether they approved of a higher local minimum wage that would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.
Instead, the commissioners asked county staff to convene a work group to hash out the issues surrounding a higher local minimum wage and possibly come to a consensus on how the county could move forward. The work group was made up of various local stakeholders, including small and large employers, nonprofits, the school district, political parties, unions and towns. The group met six times between September and December.
Vargo acknowledged that representatives from the local workforce were largely absent from the meetings. Reasons cited for their absence included the meeting times and possible intimidation factor of having employers in the same room while attempting to give earnest feedback.
However, through a survey conducted over 10 days, the county was able to get feedback and commentary from more than 1,000 respondents, including 997 workers and 72 employers. The survey showed what might have been obvious from the outset: The vast majority of workers wanted a higher local minimum wage while a majority of employers were against it.
Vargo said a lot of good ideas were produced from the process, including the need to suggest the state Legislature make changes to the minimum wage law to eliminate the $3.02 tip offset requirement, remove the 10% jurisdiction limit that has created a sense of urgency, and remove the uniformity component that requires all minimum wage earners except minors get the same pay boost.
Despite the successful workforce engagement and data presented during meetings — including case studies and statistics of minimum wage efforts in other parts of the country — Vargo said it was clear that work group participants more or less remained entrenched in the positions they had before the work group began meeting.
While the data and studies proved informative, they were marred with questions about data gathering and analysis methods.
Vargo said data regarding “upstream” impacts of a higher local minimum wage of $15 an hour showed a bump in pay for workers making up to $18 an hour but not above that point. That could be a boost for a large portion of Summit County hourly workers, most of whom make more than the state minimum wage of $12 per hour.
The staff report from the work group recommended a need for tweaks to the minimum wage law at the state level, continued dialogue between the towns and county for consensus on a new minimum wage, and a modest and less aggressive minimum wage increase schedule of 50 cents to $1 an hour annually that would eventually put the local minimum wage at $15 an hour.
• May 28: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs House Bill 1210, which would allow local governments to set their own minimum wages
• July 27: Summit County considers local minimum wage
• Sept. 2: Commissioners reject minimum wage ballot question
• Nov. 1: Workers, employers asked to fill out minimum wage survey
• Nov. 7: Survey shows workers, employers bitterly divided on minimum wage
• Nov. 14: Breckenridge Town Council opts out of minimum wage increase
• Jan. 1: Colorado minimum wage law takes effect
• Jan. 7: Summit County looks ready to increase minimum wage
Even though the county could proceed on its own and raise the minimum wage in unincorporated Summit County, doing so without an intergovernmental agreement with the towns would present myriad logistical problems. For that reason, the direction local town councils take will be integral to whether a local minimum wage passes in Summit County.
After surveying the local town boards and councils, the staff report found that Blue River, Breckenridge, Dillon and Frisco were split on raising minimum wage while Silverthorne was “strongly opposed” to a local minimum wage.
The staff report also indicated that there was a similarly split view among work group participants as to whether an advisory question should be put on the ballot for the voters to weigh in, with employers believing voters would not be informed on the issue and inevitably just voting to “give themselves a raise.” There also were worries about lost jobs and shuttered businesses.
Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who has been the most zealous proponent of raising the local minimum wage, has not budged from that position. He dismissed lingering objections to raising the local minimum wage, including the lack of town consensus.
“Right now, they are waiting for the towns to agree to it, but that’s not how government works,” Davidson said to the board. “In America, government has to lead.”
As to job loss fears, Davidson pointed out that Summit County had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, and with data showing no significant job losses from minimum wage increases elsewhere, it seemed very unlikely it would be hard to find a job or business in Summit after a moderate minimum wage increase.
Davidson said he approved of a schedule boosting the minimum wage by 75 cents a year until reaching $15, with or without town support.
Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said she was happy with how the work group process went and how much was learned. At the end of the day, she said, local problems required more local solutions.
“I think we all agree that $12 an hour is not a livable wage in Summit,” Stiegelmeier said. “Very few businesses in Summit County pay minimum wage as it is, and a 75 cent increase would have a minimal impact on businesses.”
Stiegelmeier acknowledged that 75 cents an hour wouldn’t be enough to fix the problems in Summit County, which are rooted in the costs of housing, health care and child care more than anything else. However, she saw it as a “step in the right direction” that could make a big difference after a few years.
Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence, who was the only board member opposed to putting a minimum wage advisory question on the ballot last year, seemed to remain on the fence about whether the minimum wage should be increased locally.
While Lawrence found the 75 cent incremental wage increase acceptable, she was primarily concerned with having the towns and county be in agreement on a unified minimum wage, not wanting to risk dysfunction and confusion. She also pointed out how only Denver was proceeding in raising its minimum wage, while other counties including Pitkin, Eagle, Boulder and the city of Aspen were not discussing it. That, she said, showed how trying to raise the wage might pose more challenging than it seemed at first glance.
Lawrence said she saw the upcoming town elections as shaping how the county moves forward on minimum wage, making the subject a hot-button topic during the campaign.
“The towns are very split right now, but there are town council elections in all of our towns in April or in about 10 weeks,” Lawrence said. “I think this could be a big campaign issue in all of those towns.”
County staff members are working on a resolution that would increase minimum wage in unincorporated Summit County by 75 cents a year starting in 2021 until the minimum wage reaches $15 an hour. The board is expected to take up the resolution at Jan. 28 or Feb. 11 regular county meeting.
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