On November 2, Aurora City Council will consider a proposal that would raise the city's minimum wage to $17 by 2025.
"I can imagine what it’s like for today’s minimum wage workers, and it’s impossible. It’s an impossible ask for them to be paying $1,500 for rent and working for $12 an hour," says Councilmember Alison Coombs, who is bringing the proposal to council.
"I wouldn’t waste our time talking about it and bringing it forward to a full council meeting if I wasn’t confident that I had the support," she adds.
An in a video pushing the idea, she promises: "We have the votes, so we're going to get this done."
But she doesn't have the support of the mayor. In an October 27 tweet, Mayor Mike Coffman, who serves as the tiebreaker when council is split, referred to the idea as "Dumb and Dumber."
"I can't think of a worse time to bring it forward. Most of these jobs are in the restaurant industry and it's among the hardest hit during this COVID crisis which is far from over with renewed restrictions on occupancy coming this week," Coffman says.
If the proposal makes it through a final vote in mid-November, the minimum wage in Aurora will increase to $12.60 in 2021 and then rise annually until it reaches $17 in 2025. After that, annual minimum-wage increases will be pegged to the consumer price index.
In 2019, the Colorado Legislature approved a measure that gave municipalities and counties the authority to raise the minimum wage, which hit $12 statewide in 2020. The country's minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009, and some states only offer a dollar or so more.
After Governor Jared Polis signed that legislation into law, Denver City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock acted quickly, raising the city's minimum wage to $12.85 for 2020, with a $15.87 minimum wage set for 2022. In the years after 2022, Denver's minimum wage will rise in relation to the consumer price index, with a projected minimum wage for 2025 right around the $17 proposed by Coombs for Aurora.
At a September council study session, Coombs had suggested a minimum wage of $20 by 2027; during that same session, she offered an amendment to drop the proposed increase to $17 by 2025.
But a majority of the councilmembers at that session opposed the proposal — some because they were worried about creating such a raise during an economic downturn, others simply because of a lack of time to research the idea.
After the session, though, Coombs says that constituents reached out and encouraged her to keep pushing for a minimum-wage increase before year's end.
Her current proposal kept the goal of $17 by 2025, and balances the need of workers "to get paid more now and businesses' need to be able to adjust," Coombs explains, adding that she's heard from businesses that "it takes them some time to adjust to increased wages" and that a "big increase would be very difficult for them to handle."
Because they haven't seen the new proposal, members Marsha Berzins, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner and Dave Gruber all say they can't yet formally commit one way or another — but they all also say they're not fans of the idea of a minimum-wage increase right now.
"Aurora will have an election of five councilmembers next year. I hope the voters will remember who voted to increase the entry-level minimum wage during this pandemic," Berzins says, adding that Coombs had indicated she'd reintroduce the proposal in 2021, not before year's end.
"I was honestly surprised to hear that a minimum-wage proposal was coming to us Monday for a vote when we don't have a published agenda. It was announced by Councilmember Coombs on social media," says Bergan. "Additionally, we had heard from over 100 local businesses about how detrimental it will be for them and their genuine concerns about possibly closing or moving their business when the original proposal was presented. It seems insensitive to bring this proposal forward during a recession due to the pandemic."
At the September 21 council study session where members debated both $20 and $17 minimum-wage proposals, Garrett Walls, chairman of the Business Advisory Board for the City of Aurora, testified that businesses were against any kind of minimum-wage raise at this time.
But he also added: "If we do adjust the end of the time period to where we’re on par with Denver, that helps alleviate some of the competition concerns between Aurora and Denver, and Aurora not having higher minimum wages than Denver after year 2025, as our escalations eclipse Denver, especially along the Havana Business Improvement District, since it’s very easy to just move across Havana Street and be into Denver and have lower wages potentially at that period."
Others in the business community aren't thinking that far out. Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, says that around 300 businesses have voiced opposition to a minimum-wage increase right now, noting that they feel like it's a "kick in the gut."
"Every one of them has said this is not the time to not only discuss this, but to implement it when we’re in the worst financial crisis of our history besides basically the Great Depression. Who would do something like this is the question we’re getting from hundreds of businesses," Hougen says.
He points to the retail, hotel and restaurant industries and businesses that receive Medicaid reimbursements as areas of the economy that will take a big hit if the minimum-wage increase passes.
"I think you’ll see a lot of people that had an interest in establishing something in Aurora probably will back off and move to another community," he says. "I think you can definitely see businesses closing. COVID is adding onto this challenge."
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