Should Colorado's Minimum Wage be Increased? Voters Set to Decide

Oct 6, 2016

Colorado is among a handful of states where voters are being asked if the minimum wage should be increased. Proponents say the bump for the lowest-paid workers would help struggling families. Many businesses say it could prompt layoffs.

Loree Lattick, a home healthcare worker in Lakewood, earns a wage significantly higher than the state's $8.31 minimum. She's making $13 an hour and says that amount wouldn't be enough to get by if she didn't have Social Security benefits, too.

"I would've ended up just moving and having to move back in with my family, and at 62 years old that's kind of humiliating," Lattick said. "They would have welcomed me with open arms, but this is not how I pictured my life at this point."

"A minimum wage is not meant to support a family of four."

If approved, Colorado's wage will rise annually until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020. A recent Colorado Mesa University and Rocky Mountain PBS poll showed that 58% of Coloradans strongly or somewhat favored increasing the minimum wage.

Opponents of Amendment 70 are fighting the increase. They fear the higher minimum will force restaurants and other businesses to lay off employees.

Supporters of the increase see the issue differently.

"There's plenty of room to raise wages," said Felicia Griffin, with the group Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, which is backing Amendment 70.  

"There are a lot of have-nots in our communities struggling all over the state. Folks are working full time and should be able to meet their basic needs."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, after Washington, D.C. raised the minimum wage last year, 1,400 restaurant jobs were lost.

"A minimum wage is not meant to support a family of four," said Sonia Riggs, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, which opposes the amendment. "It never was. It's intended as a starting wage to get your foot in the door, learn valuable skills, and be able to work your way up. And those are exactly the kind of jobs that are going to be cut."

The restaurant association surveyed its 4,000 members in Colorado. Riggs said 80% oppose the amendment. Many restaurant owners are reluctant to speak out against it, she said.

"Individual businesses, they're worried that they're going to be retaliated against; that people are going to say that they don't like people. That couldn't be further from the truth," said Riggs. "They're painted as somebody who is literally rolling around in money and saying, 'I want to keep this money and I want to push down workers.' And that's absolutely not true, these are hard working people, who love the people that they work with."

"There are a lot of have-nots in our communities struggling all over the state. Folks are working full time and should be able to meet their basic needs."

Opponents of the amendment said in an ideal world they'd like all wages to increase as well.

"Emotionally we all support raising wages. It is rationally, thinking what will actually happen here," said Tyler Sandberg of the Keep Colorado Working Campaign during a recent debate hosted by Colorado Public Television. "We're saying, help low wage workers, but don't do it in a way that harms them." 

He said the current proposal is flawed for many reasons, including that it has no off-ramps if the economy dips and is the same rate for both rural and urban areas. 

Still, there are businesses that back the effort to increase the minimum wage in Colorado.

Kyle Garner is the CEO of Organic India USA. The Boulder-based company sells organic tea and herbal supplements to stores such as Sprouts, Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage.

"There's a lot of people looking and saying business can be a force for good and wage is one of the first steps in that journey," he said.

Garner said he already pays above the minimum. Warehouse jobs, for example, start at $14 an hour. He could even support the idea of minimum wage as high as $15 an hour.

"We keep costs down in terms of training employees because we have lower turnover," he said. "The cost of replacing employees every few months, burning through workers, not only is it bad for the culture of the organization, it's a huge cost impact. We also have more productive workers because they're happier."

Colorado's Amendment 70 is also supported by the president's Democratic administration. For instance, Labor Secretary Tom Perez recently swung through the state to campaign for it. 

"Good businesses know how to adjust," he said. "Change is a constant in our industry."

For Lattick, the Lakewood health care worker, an increase would be a kind of security net. If she ever had to move on from her current $13-an-hour job, she would know that her wage wouldn't fall below $12.

"If I had to change jobs and I had to step down to $12 to have a better working environment or some other benefit – like many a company that was earned paid time off or earned sick leave -- it would be worth it," she said.