Money talks

Boulder County wants to raise the minimum wage — but all its cities have to get on board

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Denver went first. In 2020 — a year after the Colorado Legislature passed HB 19-1210, allowing municipalities to set a higher minimum wage than the state — the capital city gradually raised its base pay by nearly $4 an hour to the current $17.29. 

Then nothing for three years.

Finally, this year, the City of Edgewater — 5,000 residents west of Denver — decided to take advantage of the amendment, doubling its minimum wage over five years beginning in 2024. 

And that’s it: Only Denver and Edgewater have raised pay above the state’s current $13.65 an hour (which is, thankfully, a far cry from the paltry $7.25 mandated at the federal level since 2009). But how about Boulder County? For decades, rightwingers have been all hot and bothered about how horribly progressive we are. 

The Boulder County Commissioners supported HB 19-1210, but that’s about all they could do. Because the legislation requires local governments to consult with surrounding jurisdictions and stakeholders before enacting a new minimum salary, the county would only be able to raise wages unilaterally for unincorporated areas. So the commissioners have started a formal process to enact a countywide minimum wage. This year, councils across the county have heard presentations from the Consortium of Cities (leadership from each muni in the county), local chambers of commerce and the Boulder Area Labor Council about the possibility.

“If anybody’s going to do this and make it work — any municipality — it’s going to have to be in concert with other municipalities,” Longmont council member Tim Waters said at a June 6 meeting. “There’s no way this works without it being a regional approach.”

Councilors in Lafayette at a July 18 meeting indicated they would be interested in participating in analysis and discussions around a countywide minimum salary increase.

And the City of Boulder began its discussions around raising earnings back in late May, with a goal of reaching a $25-an-hour minimum wage by 2028. This target amount came from Geof Cahoon, the president of the Boulder Area Labor Council AFL-CIO, during a news conference in April. 

“We are going to base this on a self-sustaining wage to make sure that all workers live in dignity in Boulder County,” he said, “and are not scraping for table scraps.” 

Cahoon was representing the Boulder County Self-Sufficiency Wage Coalition, which is made up of nonprofits, labor unions, community groups, faith-based organizations and policy experts. The coalition is basing its recommendations on the work of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a Denver-based think-tank with a mission to “fight against poverty through research, legislation and legal advocacy.”

The Center uses the Self-Sufficiency Standard as an indicator of need rather than the federal poverty line, which is based on USDA food budgets that meet minimal nutritional standards. By contrast, the Self-Sufficiency Standard includes all basic necessities: food, housing, child and health care, transportation, taxes and other miscellaneous costs. To ensure consistent, up-to-date data, the Center on Law and Policy commissions the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare to produce regular reports on the Self-Sufficiency Standard for all 64 Colorado counties.

The standard determines how much income a family within a given county has to earn to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. It deals with variables such as family composition, ages of children and geographic differences.

The most recent report, authored by Annie Kucklick, Lisa Manzer and Alyssa Mast, says that one adult in Boulder County needs to make $41,058 a year; one adult with a preschooler needs $80,435; one adult with a preschooler and school-age child needs $99,411; and two adults with a preschooler and school-age child need $107,462.

“Note that the standard is ‘bare bones,’” the authors write, “with just enough allotted to meet basic needs, but no extras. For example, the food budget is only for groceries. It does not allow for any takeout or restaurant food, not even a pizza or an ice cream.”

Armed with this data, Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) has pleaded with cities across the county “to address the urgent community need we are seeing” by implementing, “at a minimum, a 15% increase in the local minimum wage … as well as develop a plan to meet or exceed Denver’s minimum wage by 2026.”

Established in 1918, EFAA is a crucial charity which offers short-term and transitional housing, food and emergency financial assistance to Boulder families, seniors and people with disabilities. However, the organization is overwhelmed these days, as the end of COVID-era programs have left individuals and nonprofits with less money while inflation has demanded even more. EFAA released a policy brief this year, noting the organization has “seen a dramatic increase in the number of households coming to EFAA for support.” The organization says one in three of those househands had never needed EFAA’s services in the past.

“Weekly EFAA food bank visits are twice the level pre-COVID,” the policy brief reads. “The rising costs of rent and utilities have increased housing insecurity, leading to pressures on EFAA for financial assistance to keep people housed and with the lights on. Even with this support, evictions have increased dramatically across Boulder County. The number of school children experiencing homelessness in the Boulder Valley School District has increased to over 800 this school year, from pre-COVID levels in the low 300s. EFAA is having to step in more frequently with emergency hotel stays to provide short-term shelter for families with children who have lost their housing.”

All of which adds to the urgency of increasing the minimum wage here in Boulder County. Grocery workers have had a front row seat as the price of food has increased — nearly 6% from last summer, according to the USDA. Employees at King Soopers, the state’s largest grocery store, went on strike in January 2022 after months of negotiations. Nearly two weeks later, the grocery chain inked a deal with workers, upping the average minimum salary by $2 an hour, with some employees seeing an increase of more than $5. Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers, agreed to take on a larger share of health costs, provide more protection of pension benefits and better safeguard staff from COVID-19 and violence within stores. 

Conor Hall is a 27-year-old King Soopers employee at the Table Mesa store in Boulder. Masks were required during the pandemic, but there were unmasked customers who didn’t maintain social distancing. Some were belligerent with employees or other shoppers. Hall was instructed to ask patrons to wear masks but was hesitant since “you didn’t know how a particular person would react. People could be violent.”

Hall feels “pretty fortunate.” As a union member with a contract, he is more protected from arbitrary management decisions. He was on vacation on March 22, 2021 when a gunman came into the store and murdered 10 people. 

But, like many grocery store workers, Hall can’t afford rent in Boulder. He lives with his mother in Berthoud, but is able to save money. Hall supports higher minimum wages because businesses are “stealing from the community” if their employees can’t make ends meet.

Despite being careful, Hall did get COVID. He was an essential but expendable worker. He got a little extra “hero pay,” which abruptly ended in the middle of the pandemic.

Remember the common good? An injury to one is an injury to all?

The pandemic offered us an opportunity to have national unity against a common foe: a deadly virus. Instead, the stupid culture wars continued, accompanied by truly suicidal rugged individualism.

But it’s not too late to address the problems the pandemic laid bare. The cities of Boulder County can promote the common good by supporting a minimum-wage increase. On July 31, the Colorado Fiscal Institute reported “positive results” from its three-year analysis of Denver’s higher base pay. 

“Our analysis found Denver did better in three categories compared to the rest of the state: unemployment was lower; weekly earnings increased; and sales tax collections all outperformed the rest of Colorado — precisely the opposite of what opponents had predicted would happen,” wrote Chris Stiffler, senior economist for the Fiscal Institute, in a press release. 

Faster job growth, higher earning and greater economic stability is what Boulder County stands to gain. 

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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