Thanks to a law passed by Democrats at the Capitol earlier this year, Colorado cities now have the power to raise their own minimum wage — but not before talking about it for a while.
Under a proposal unveiled last month, Denver is set to become the first municipality in Colorado to take advantage of the new law, and city officials — following through on its requirement that they “engage stakeholders” before enacting a new minimum-wage ordinance — held the first of six planned town halls, in southwest Denver, on Wednesday, October 2.
“Denver has been riding an amazing economic wave recently,” Mayor Michael Hancock told residents who gathered in a meeting room at the Justice for All Center to weigh in on the proposal. “But we also have realized that over the last forty years, wages have not kept up with the cost of living.”
Under the wage ordinance proposed by Hancock and Councilwoman At-Large Robin Kniech, Denver’s minimum wage would rise to $13.80 an hour next year and to $15.87 in 2021, and in subsequent years would be adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index. In all, more than 100,000 Denver workers would see their wages go up.
“It’s important that we hear from everyone that makes up our economy,” said Hancock. “We certainly need to hear from the employees — you are the heartbeat of our GDP. We also need to hear from employers, and their concerns and thoughts.”
The proposal is drawing pushback from business owners, especially the restaurant industry. For tipped workers, the state’s current “tip credit” of $3.02 an hour would remain unchanged, meaning that the minimum wage for many restaurant staff would be $10.78 an hour next year and $12.85 in 2021.
Nearly all residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting voiced support for the minimum-wage increase. But they made clear to Hancock, Kniech and other city officials who were present that the wage ordinance alone wouldn’t solve problems of affordability and displacement that have plagued many of Denver’s low- and middle-income communities.
“Right now I’m looking for an apartment around here,” said resident Pedro Carrillo. “All the apartments are $1,300, $1,200, sometimes $1,800 a month. Right now I make $1,800 a month. How do you think we can make [things] more affordable for everybody working-class?”
“I live in the downtown area, and there’s a crane on every corner, these high-rise buildings going up,” said Yolanda Loftis. “These real-estate companies — are you talking to them like you’re talking to us?”
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“I feel like I’ve been talked down to,” Loftis continued. “Because I can do those figures quickly, and it’s still going to be the same situation in a couple years. If I need $25 [an hour], what’s $15 going to do? You’re only doing $15 because it’s been at $11 forever. We live down here. We’re crunched.”
City officials promised to continue working to address non-wage-related issues like housing and health care, and noted that the wage ordinance's 15 percent rise each of the next two years is the maximum allowed by the new state law.
“Is that enough? No," said Evan Dreyer, Hancock's deputy chief of staff. "Is it the most we can do? Yes."
The City and County of Denver will hold five additional community meetings on its proposed minimum wage ordinance throughout October. The town hall schedule is available on the city's website.