Mo money, mo problems

BoCo has a new minimum wage, but no one told businesses.

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In just a few weeks, anyone who works at Guardian Storage’s two North Boulder locations — from company employees down to contractors who scrub the toilets or repair the building — will have to be paid at least $15.69 an hour, Boulder County’s new minimum wage. 

Workers at Guardian’s nearby competitors will have a state-mandated minimum wage of $14.42: the U-Haul facility across the street and two Life Storage locations up (and down) the block. 

In fact, most of the businesses along north Broadway will be subject to the lower hourly rate. That’s because they are in Boulder’s city limits, whereas Guardian sits in county enclaves, pockets of land that are technically under the County’s legal authority despite being surrounded by City property.

There are dozens of places like this, where city meets county, in Boulder, Longmont, Gunbarrel and elsewhere. The blurry lines can cause confusion and consternation for property owners who get caught in the bureaucratic liminal space between adjacent government agencies.

The latest conflict is Boulder County’s impending minimum wage increase, scheduled to start Jan. 1 in unincorporated parts of the county. While the 15% boost in pay is welcome news for low-wage workers, it is highlighting the headache that disparate policies can cause. 

Many businesses and workers don’t know the wage hike is coming, and government agencies are taking a reactive approach to informing the community. In the meantime, the quick turnaround and subpar outreach are leaving some worried about the potential for people to be paid less than they are legally owed.

‘Crushing need’

Boulder (City and County) have been talking about raising the minimum wage since at least 2020. That’s when Colorado started allowing local municipalities to set their own minimums above and beyond the state wage. 

Colorado led the way with a $12 minimum wage that year and a plan for ongoing, annual increases. Denver followed with a wage that in 2024 will top $18 per hour.

In early 2020, Boulder’s County and City leaders took the idea to the Consortium of Cities, a group of local government officials. Then came the pandemic. Talks resumed in April 2022, but most towns didn’t fully and formally endorse the effort until this year. 

It’s better for all Boulder County to work together: State law incentivizes cooperation by imposing a limit on how many municipalities can do their own minimum wages. Coordinated counties count as one rather than the number of individual cities that are included. 

Group endeavors can also pave the way for future collaborations on regional issues like homelessness, housing and mental health. 

Early this year, Boulder County’s municipalities were on a path for a 2025 increase. Then, in August, County Commissioners announced they were striking out on their own to raise wages in 2024. 

The Nov. 2 vote was unanimous, with elected officials focusing on — in Commissioner Claire Levy’s words — the “crushing need” of low-wage earners whose expenses far outstrip their meager earnings.

“This will be the most important thing we can do for families this year,” Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann said. 

Businesses unaware

The City of Boulder’s elected officials decided not to join the County this year, citing the less-than-two month turnaround between the Commissioners’ unanimous vote and implementation. Boulder and other towns are awaiting the results of an economic analysis, due in early summer, and wanted time for more robust public engagement. 

“None of the municipalities felt comfortable being able to move as quickly as enactment in 2024 would require,” says Lauren Folkerts, Boulder’s representative to the Consortium. “Working with a bunch of different governments takes time. The wheels turn slowly.” 

Boulder County planned its schedule so that cities could catch up by 2025. State law limits local increases to 15% above the state’s wage. Boulder County’s 2024 wage will jump the maximum amount, but 2025’s will rise just 5%, giving cities the room to match the county. 

Boulder County minimum wage schedule
2024: $15.69 per hour
2025: $16.57
2026: $17.99
2027: $19.53
2028: $21.21
2029: $23.03
2030: $25.00
Beginning Jan. 1, 2031 and on Jan. 1 of each subsequent calendar year, minimum wage increases will correspond with the Consumer Price Index for the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood Area.
Wages for tipped employees can be $3.02 per hour less than the local minimum wage each year. For 2024, the tipped minimum wage is $12.67 per hour.

It’s unclear how many businesses and workers will be impacted. The current wage only applies in unincorporated Boulder County, which includes Niwot, Allenspark, Coal Creek Canyon, Eldora, Eldorado Springs, Gold Hill, Hygiene, portions of Gunbarrel (other parts belong to the City of Boulder) and anywhere between city limits. 

The double-wage dilemma may continue after 2025, too: Only Erie, Superior, Lafayette, Longmont and Louisville agreed to the hike. Lyons, Nederland and Jamestown declined to participate, though Folkerts says the Consortium will “do our best to incorporate those communities” if they want to join later. 

More than 20,000 Boulder County jobs paid less than $15 per hour in 2022, according to Boulder-based Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA). But where those jobs are is a mystery: The County doesn’t know how many businesses fall under its jurisdiction. Officials cited the above number from EFAA as its sole source of information about potential impacts. 

State officials don’t have a count, either. Nor does the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. Officials from the Latino and Longmont Chambers did not respond to requests for comment. 

Employees at 10 businesses and nonprofits randomly visited by Boulder Weekly were unaware of the change. Only one had workers who knew about the new minimum wage: gear consignment shop Boulder Sports Recycler. 

Managers there came across the information while researching their quest for a raise. The company’s top brass wasn’t aware, they said, but implemented the higher wage early once workers informed them about it.

“Lots of businesses, it’s not on their radar yet,” says Sharon King, executive director of the Boulder Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “We don’t know if people have yet really registered that this is coming.” 

‘Holding mode’

The lack of broad awareness has Jonathan Singer worried about the potential for wage theft. 

“It is an under-reported thing,” says Singer, a former Colorado legislator. During his term in the House of Representatives, Singer sponsored legislation to make serious wage violations a felony offense. 

Enforcement of wage laws is largely complaint based. That means workers have to know they are being underpaid to trigger an investigation.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than $3 billion in unpaid wages was recovered from employers by state and federal government agencies from 2017 to 2020. The Colorado Fiscal Institute (based on a 2009 study from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) estimated wage theft at $728 million annually. Latinx workers are the most common victims, and women are more likely to have wages stolen than men, the report found.

“A lot of times, it happens with lower-wage workers and often amongst our undocumented community,” Singer agreed. “They’re nervous about reporting and getting retaliated against, which is illegal, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

Spanish-speaking workers are the most likely to be impacted by Boulder County’s new law as well. A survey of EFAA’s clients found that 43% of Spanish-speakers earned less than $15 per hour in 2022, versus 24% of all respondents.

“Whether it’s intentional or unintentional,” Singer says, “if the word doesn’t get out, it’s very likely” that people could be underpaid. 

In response to emailed questions and a request for an interview, county commissioner spokesperson Gloria Handyside wrote, “The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) will remain the responsible body for compliance/enforcement. Their wage materials are issued in mid-December. We are working on our plans for outreach, including advertising.”

Before the commissioners’ vote, Boulder County held three virtual listening sessions and a town hall event in Niwot. The events “didn’t get a huge response,” King says: around a dozen people attended each meeting and the Nov. 2 public hearing.

“If I have a small mom-and-pop coffee shop,” Singer says, “unless someone has told me, ‘You’re in unincorporated Boulder County; you have to raise your minimum wage,’ I’m not watching those.” 

A monthlong survey was more successful, drawing 355 participants; 64% of respondents identified as workers and 13% as business owners. The County updated its website with resources and answers to frequently asked questions, as did the CDLE.

Employers are legally required to post the current minimum wage in their places of business. CDLE provides a downloadable poster, and the County’s website links to it. But it doesn’t reference Boulder County’s new, higher wage. 

There are no plans to proactively contact impacted businesses: not from the County, not by CDLE or any of the business groups contacted by Boulder Weekly.

“We’re not doing anything right now,” says Singer, who is now senior director of policy and programs at Boulder Chamber. “Most of our businesses are in incorporated parts of Boulder” and therefore exempt. 

Also, many workers are already making more than minimum wage, so Singer suspects the impact will be limited. 

SBDC was tapped to facilitate two listening sessions and has been tasked with helping businesses post-implementation. King says the organization is facing a Catch-22: It is waiting to hear from employers that need help, but they can’t ask for help on something they don’t know about.

“We’re kind of in a holding mode,” she says. “I just think the next year is going to be quite challenging because nobody quite knows what’s going on.”

Where the work is 

There’s one other item on the list of things many businesses don’t know: whether they’re located in the county or a city.

Municipalities add land to their city limits through a complicated legal process known as annexation. Cities annex property for a number of reasons such as expanding their tax base. During its since-abandoned push to run its own electric utility, the City of Boulder annexed a number of properties to give them more future customers. Property owners can also ask cities to annex them so they can access services like water, sewer, police, fire, etc. 

Because cities expand piecemeal, there are often leftover enclaves of county land surrounded by municipal jurisdictions. While property owners and the people signing paychecks might know which governmental authority their businesses are under, it can be less clear to workers. 

Consider Moxie Bread Co. on Broadway in North Boulder; a worker there believed it to be City of Boulder property, but county records show it as unincorporated. (A spokesperson for Moxie confirmed the company was aware of its location and the coming minimum wage increase.) Up the street, City of Boulder officials tried to collect back taxes from consignment shop The Amazing Garage Sale, a volunteer said, but they’re also in the county. In Longmont, a whole slew of businesses along North Main Street firmly believe they are in Boulder County. Property records say no. 

Boulder County’s minimum wage website links to a property search function. That’s the definitive source for determining if a business is in unincorporated county or city limits, according to county planner Clara Wagh.

“A variation of the Property Search tool is the resource we use as planners,” Wagh wrote in response to emailed questions. “It is based on our records as well as what is reported to the Assessor’s office.”

CDLE will work with employers to determine location, says Scott Moss, not only of physical businesses but of where the work was actually performed. That’s because the minimum wage applies whenever four or more hours work is done anywhere in unincorporated Boulder County. 

“If you’re a business that sends people out to clients” — house cleaners, dog walkers, construction workers, landscapers, etc. — “there’s a higher wage that needs to be paid,” Moss says. “If a plumber goes out for 1.5 hours to a house in Niwot, that’s not covered. But if it’s a plumber that does a bunch of calls in Niwot” lasting more than four hours, the local minimum must be paid. 

‘The state is Switzerland’

It’s not uncommon for businesses to straddle different wage lines, Moss says. 

“There always have been businesses at or near the border” of states with different wages, he says. “It’s a little like a business in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that sends people into northern Colorado, or businesses in Grand Junction or on the border of Colorado and other states. 

“You have to be mindful if you’re sending someone into a jurisdiction with a different minimum  wage.”

Like SBDC, Moss says CDLE has no list of or plans to contact impacted businesses, although it is staffing up its voluntary compliance team in preparation. 

“The state doesn’t review every paycheck of 3 million employees across the state,” he says. “There’s so many employers and employees — you have over 100,000 employees in Boulder County, easily — we can’t just show up in a room and expect people to show up.” 

The agency does present to groups on various aspects of the law, upon request, Moss says. So far, no one from Boulder County has. 

CDLE will likely repeat its strategy from Denver’s minimum wage increase, what Moss calls “targeted outreach” that overlaps with investigations.

“We found some Denver restaurants were paying $3.02 less than the Colorado minimum wage rather than the Denver minimum wage to tipped employees,” he says. “We searched which employers were doing that and wrote them letters. We would expect to be doing some of that in Boulder County.” 

As with most wage violations, “virtually all restaurants fixed it when we brought it to their attention,” Moss says. 

Though theft is typically punishable by penalties up to 5.5 times the amount of unpaid wages  — depending on willful versus accidental incidents and how quickly employers repay workers — early efforts in Boulder County will likely not have damages or fines attached if companies comply. (Penalties and damages go directly to the aggrieved worker; the state collects fines for itself “but they’re far, far lower than the penalties,” according to Moss.)

“State law is calibrated to encourage prompt payment and give employers a break if they fix violations when notified,” he says.

A minimum-wage worker in unincorporated Boulder County who is underpaid for the entirety of 2024 (assuming a full-time, 40-hour work week) would be owed slightly more than $2,600 if no penalties were assessed.

Did you know?
There’s a minimum salary requirement in Colorado. Workers are entitled to overtime pay and lunch/rest breaks if they make less than $55,000 per year in 2024 (with some exceptions). Learn more:

Currently, Moss says there are “several dozen” wage violations in Boulder County each year. Wage theft takes many forms; the most common is workers being incorrectly classified as independent contractors (who are not subject to minimum wage laws). 

People often believe that any worker who filled out a 1900 form is a contractor, “but that isn’t how it works,” he says. “It’s based on the work, not whether [workers are] paid by 1099. You can’t opt out of labor law by reciting an incantation saying, ‘Thou art a contractor.’”

Moss is confident that, once businesses know, they will fall in line. He isn’t too bothered by Boulder County’s conflicting wage situation. The state worked hard to update information within weeks of the county commissioners’ vote, and they’ll work just as swiftly to correct any issues that crop up next year, he says.

“The state is Switzerland as to whether anyone should adopt anything or not. We adopt outreach and enforcement, and hopefully it can be done the best it can.”