The typical Denver renter pays roughly $1,638 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, more than double the $770 median monthly rent a hundred miles east in Yuma, according to federal housing data. But not only do minimum-wage workers in both cities take home roughly the same pay every month, Denver is barred by Colorado law from setting a higher minimum wage of its own. Now, Democrats and a coalition of activist groups wants to change that.
On Monday, February 25, Democratic lawmakers at the State Capitol introduced the latest version of the Local Government Minimum Wage Act, a bill that would repeal a 1999 state law prohibiting local governments from enacting their own minimum-wage ordinances.
“What works for Denver is not necessarily going to work for Greeley or Trinidad," said Representative Rochelle Galindo, a Democrat from Greeley and a bill sponsor, at a press conference announcing the legislation. “The cost of living continues to increase while wages remain stagnant, and the local wage option is a tool that can help Colorado's varied communities thrive.”
“Between 2012 and 2016, the cost of rent throughout the state rose at a pace that was six times faster than folks’ wages,” says Robel Worku, an economic-justice organizer with the Colorado People’s Alliance, one of the groups behind the bill. “We believe that local governments should have the ability to respond to that in a way that makes sense for their communities.”
Colorado is one of 25 states, most of them conservative-leaning, that have passed so-called preemption laws prohibiting local minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. In recent years, several attempts to repeal the state’s preemption law have passed the Democratic-controlled House before being defeated by Senate Republicans, who argued that allowing cities to set their own minimum wages hurt job growth and cause consumer prices to rise sharply.
There’s little evidence to support their claims. In a 2014 paper, researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment surveyed nine local minimum-wage laws across the country and reviewed dozens of studies of their effects. Their analysis concluded that the higher employment costs imposed by local minimum-wage hikes “are absorbed largely by reduced turnover costs and by small price increases among restaurants.”
The federal minimum wage hasn’t budged from $7.25 an hour since it was last raised in 2009, and over the past decade, labor groups have increasingly shifted their attention to state and local governments. In 2016, the Colorado People’s Alliance and dozens of other activist groups successfully fought to pass Amendment 70, which has gradually increased the statewide minimum wage to its current level of $11.10 an hour. It will rise one last time, to $12 an hour, on January 1 of next year.
An initiative proposing a $15 minimum wage for workers at Denver International Airport is slated to appear on the municipal ballot in May — though it will likely be withdrawn now that City Council is expected to pass an ordinance raising the minimum wage for all city employees to $15 an hour by 2021. Nationally, the Fight For $15 campaign has successfully fought for dozens of increases at the state and municipal levels since its launch in 2012, and cities including New York, Seattle and San Francisco have set their minimum wages at $15 an hour or higher.
If Democrats at the Capitol repeal Colorado’s preemption law, Denver and other Front Range municipalities could be next. On Monday night, the Denver City Council voted unanimously to approve a proclamation urging the legislature and Governor Jared Polis to pass the local minimum-wage bill this session.
"There is no doubt that this is sorely needed in our state," said Councilman Paul Lopez in support of the proclamation. "There are a lot of people who are struggling to make ends meet. And when a city's cost of living skyrockets the way it is here in Denver and wages don't go up, it leaves so many people behind."
Last year, a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that in order to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment, a minimum-wage worker in Denver needed to work 74 hours per week at the state's 2018 minimum wage of $10.20. Even with the $12 an hour wage mandated by Amendment 70, that figure will be roughly 63 hours per week.
"We [supported Amendment 70] with the recognition that that's what was winnable then," says Worku. "But it's not enough for folks who are struggling to make ends meet in this economy."