Amendment 70 would boost the minimum wage from its current $8.31 per hour to $12 by 2020, with incremental bumps over a three-year period.
In the following interview, Debra Brown, campaign manager for Colorado Business for a Fair Minimum Wage — a key part of a coalition under the Colorado Families for a Fair Wage banner — outlines the proposal and responds to points raised by opponents of the measure.
The complete transcription of our conversation is supplemented by photos from the Colorado Families for a Fair Wage Facebook page, as well as links and insertions made for reasons of fact-checking and clarification.
Westword: Why should voters support Amendment 70?
Debra Brown: Amendment 70 is a modest and gradual increase to the minimum wage that will bring it up to $12 by 2020. It gives businesses time to adjust. So not only is it good for the Colorado economy — it's projected to contribute $400 million to the Colorado economy, according to a study that was conducted by the University of Denver — but it's also good for business.
How will the rate increase?
It will go up by 99 cents starting in January of 2017, and then 90 cents each year until 2020, and it will be adjusted thereafter for the cost of living.
There have been a lot of rallies in Denver and across the country over recent months and years calling for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Why was $15 not the targeted amount for Amendment 70? Why was $12 chosen instead?
Amendment 70 was two years in the making. We brought together stakeholders, including business owners, working families and community organizations around the state, and the goal was to come up with a proposal that was good for Colorado — one that would gradually increase the minimum wage in a way that gives businesses a chance to adjust and, at the end of the day, will provide hardworking Coloradans with a much-needed raise. We felt that $12 by 2020 — that is the number for Colorado. That's what will work here to ensure that businesses will continue to thrive here, but workers won't have to make the choice between paying the rent and putting food on the table.
What kind of business participation did you have over the two-year period when you were shaping the proposal?
A lot of it was the member organizations that are part of the coalition — organizations that have members who are self-proprietors, that are small-business owners, that can represent what is good for small business as well as [for] their families and the community at large.
Who is backing this proposal?
We have a wide base of support across the state of Colorado and outside of Colorado. We have organizations that support gains for working families across the country, and we have small donors, we have home health-care workers who are contributing. We have a lot of teachers. Teachers are contributing through the NEA, the National Education Association, because they're really on the front lines. They see what happens when kids come to school hungry. They know that parental income is the greatest driver of the achievement gap. We have people who tell stories about kids whose teeth are literally rotting in their mouth because they can't afford to go to the dentist. It's very hard to focus on learning when your mouth hurts. So we have a lot of participation from organizations that represent teachers, as well as individual community members, businesses and organizations that are supporting changes across the country.
Your opponents characterize this measure as being backed by out-of-state labor unions — and they also maintain that the amendment is virtually identical to proposals in Arizona and Maine. The suggestion is that, rather than being tailored for Colorado, Amendment 71 is actually a generic template that's being pushed on the state. Why is that an inaccurate statement from your point of view?
We think it's kind of funny, because if you look at these other proposals, they're actually much more aggressive than ours. Maine's eliminates the tip credit entirely. Arizona's includes paid sick days. So all the initiatives are different, and ours really is tailored for Colorado, and it takes into account the gradual, modest increase that will give businesses a chance to adjust.
Are the Maine and Arizona measures sponsored by some of the same organizations? And how much labor-union involvement is there in your coalition?
I can't speak to who, exactly, is funding other state propositions. [Ballotpedia's list of donors in Maine is topped by the state's branch of the AFL-CIO, while Arizona's most generous giver is said to be an organization called Living United for Change in Arizona.] I do know that there are some organizations that are funding initiatives in other states because they want to see gains for workers across the country. In terms of the labor participation in our particular coalition, they're at the table. One thing we're really proud of — and which, to be honest, has been a real struggle to stay true to — is making sure that the voices at the table and the people who have access to decision-making aren't pay-to-play. That it's based on representation of communities that are most impacted. We've been very intentional about that and are pretty proud about that. So yes, there are labor unions at the table, particular SEIU [Service Employees International Union].
The thing that the opposition is missing about it is why they care. SEIU workers get paid higher wages. Most of them are above $12 anyhow. Their fight isn't because they're in this for their own personal benefit. It's because they know the importance of raising all boats. We're talking about almost half a million people who are going to get a raise as a result of this initiative. That's why the home health-care workers that SEIU represents are at the table and fighting for this. And again, the teachers. NEA is, I think, the largest organization of teachers, but they're not supporting this because they're going to get a pay raise. It's because they know they can't do their jobs to the best of their ability when their kids are coming to school hungry and don't know where they're going to sleep at night. That's why teachers are supporting this and are very much all in, here and around the country.
In Colorado, there are 200,000 parents who work full-time but are still raising their kids in poverty. [Click for 2015 stats about Colorado poverty.] And they see the impact of that. You can say the unions are participating. But you also need to say why they care so much when they personally aren't going to benefit directly in terms of their salary. This is about lifting the boats of all and their ability to do their jobs.
You mentioned tips earlier. Could you tell me more about the specifics?
Sure. We're talking about 50,000 Coloradans who work as waiters and waitresses, and they make a median wage, including tips, of $9.02 an hour. The opposition is painting this picture of restaurant workers making more than managers — making bank. And certainly that may be true at high-end and trendy restaurants in Denver and Boulder. But the fact of the matter is, $9.02 is the median wage for servers across Colorado. And this is 50,000 people we're talking about — but Amendment 70 is going to help nearly half a million people; 480,000 people are going to get a raise as a result of Amendment 70. So it's not only about the tipped-wage workers needing a raise, too.
There's not a county in the state of Colorado where you can raise a kid on $300 a week. That's in rural Colorado and that's in urban Colorado. The cost of housing has gone up across the state of Colorado. So I think it's important to point out that these tipped workers need the raises, too. They shouldn't be excluded from this. And we're talking about more than those 50,000 workers. We're talking about home health-care workers who are taking care of disabled and elderly members of our society. We're talking about preschool teachers — a lot of preschool teachers make minimum wage. And EMTs: That was the one I was really surprised to learn about. There are EMTs who are barely scraping by.
As far as the tip credit, it doesn't change. The tip credit is currently $3.02. That tip credit differential will stay the same. So the tip credit will increase at the same intervals as the regular minimum wage; $5.29 is what tipped employees make now, and they'll make $8.98 in 2020.....
Basically, Colorado restaurant owners benefit from the tip credit, that $3.02. And because tipped workers get a chunk of money from consumers, from their customers, the business only has to pay the difference between that amount and the minimum wage. And that's become an issue in this campaign. A lot of states are doing away with the tip credit, period. But we didn't touch it. We left it exactly the same as it is, so that tipped workers won't be disproportionately penalized. They're not going to be left behind. When an EMT or a preschool worker gets a raise of 90 cents an hour, so will the tipped worker.
Those opposing Amendment 70 have also complained about what they see as the economic disparities across the state. They suggest that businesses in booming Denver may be able to absorb these raises, but in rural communities that are struggling, businesses simply won't be able to do so. According to them, they reached out and offered a variety of proposals prior to the initiative making the ballot, suggesting that different wages be set for rural versus urban communities, plus provisions for first-time workers and teenagers — and those suggestions were rejected. Can you tell me, from your perspective, why Amendment 70 is fair for everyone across the state as written? And can you also tell me about any outreach efforts you're familiar with involving the Colorado Restaurant Association and other opposition members?
If you look up the ballot measures they filed, not one of them includes a rural or small-business or agricultural allowance. [The unsuccessful proposals can be accessed at this page on the Colorado Secretary of State's website.] They keep saying that, but the titles that were submitted by the restaurant association certainly don't show that.
We didn't exempt rural Colorado because the truth of the matter is, Amendment 70 will be good for rural Colorado. It will be good for small businesses there like it was in 2006 [via Initiative 42].
In 2006, we increased the minimum wage by 33 percent overnight. The opposition's narrative is that every time there's been a minimum wage increase, in the history of minimum wage increases, they're sure the sky is going to fall, the sky is going to fall. But that's not what happened. We have a vast body of research that's been conducted over decades showing that gradual, modest minimum wage increases like the one we have on the ballot here in Colorado do not increase unemployment, even in industries that are most likely to hire low-wage workers. And they continue to show modest increases in wages for low-wage workers. That's what happened here in 2006.
Between 2006 and 2008, after raising the minimum wage by 33 percent overnight, we added 73,000 jobs to the overall Colorado economy; 6,000 of those were in rural Colorado, and 5,000 of those were in the restaurant industry. There were 3,300 new small businesses — small businesses are described as having fifty employees or fewer — that opened their doors between 2006 and 2008. And the small business sector added 15,000 jobs to their payrolls. So the opposition's claims that this is going to be bad for rural Colorado and bad for small businesses is discredited by the large body of research that's been conducted over decades. And it's also inconsistent with what happened in Colorado.
In 2008 and for the years immediately thereafter, a recession hit — and another complaint made by the opposition to Amendment 70 is that there's no provision to pause the raises should another recession come along. Were there job losses during that economic downturn that can be traced to the higher minimum wage? Or do you feel that's inaccurate?
If you look at when recessions have hit historically, you never hear about people saying the solution is to cut wages or to freeze wages, because the best way to stimulate economic growth is to put money in the pockets of workers. So even in a recession, low-wage workers who make money spend it. They don't put it in offshore bank accounts and they don't put it in 401ks. So maintaining wages, especially for people at the bottom who are struggling the most, is one of the most important things you can do to stimulate economic growth. The recession hit everybody hard. And after the recession, in the restaurant industry, the job growth skyrocketed.
If there were job losses during the recession, is it your position that those job losses didn't come as a result of a higher minimum wage passed a few years earlier?
Absolutely not. Decades of research show that higher minimum wages have little to no impact on unemployment.
How are you getting the message out about your proposal? And what kind of responses are you getting?
The good news is, the polling is consistently showing that the majority of voters are in support of Amendment 70, and that's even after being bombarded by the opposition messaging. We're combating that with our limited resources. But even after all that negative messaging from the opposition, people get it. In terms of polling and general support, we're doing quite well. It helps when we have endorsements from Governor Hickenlooper, from Mayor Hancock. Those, of course, are helpful. And for me, personally, it's been amazing to see the level of support from businesses. We're around 200 official endorsers. There are restaurants ranging from Illegal Pete's to manufacturing like Polar Bottle in Boulder.
That's a great story. The owner of Polar Bottle, her name is Judy [Amabile]. She actually raised her wages to $12 back in 2011, and she did it because she thought it was the right thing to do. She fully expected her bottom line to go down. She expected it to cost her money, but she and her business partner decided it was the right thing to do, because her workers were having to work multiple jobs and struggling so hard to be able to have money for their kids to participate in extracurricular sports. That's the thing: When you have small-business owners who are working with their employees, that's why you see so many Colorado businesses that are already paying average wages over $12 an hour.
I love her story, because to me, she's our business case. She's competing against China — but what happened was, when she raised her wages, her per-bottle production costs actually went down. That's because her turnover became pretty much nonexistent. People wanted to work there. They didn't have to get second jobs. They weren't late for work when their cars broke down; they could fix them instead of having to rely on public transportation. Employees work harder when they feel valued. That's just common sense. But we hear it time and time again from our business owners across sectors. They say when they treat their employees with respect and pay them a wage that allows them to take care of their basic needs, their employees provide better customer service. They're just better employees. They see productivity go up, they see absenteeism and turnover go down. And those are things that are cost-saving benefits.
Pete Turner with Illegal Pete's, he's another one who did the math. He did a livable-wage initiative in 2015. He saw that his bottom line went up, and he didn't increase his prices. It was because his retention of employees was so much higher than the industry average that he didn't have to spend those resources training new employees. So his margins went up as well.
Software is another example. The CEO of Simple Energy also has a great story about why he cares about the minimum wage and why he's endorsed Amendment 70. He pays his call-center people $15 an hour, even though that's a function that can be outsourced. When people don't outsource it, these are usually low-paying jobs. But he pays $15 an hour because he knows it leads to improved performance and retention, and greater customer satisfaction. And the facts support that. He has an overall customer-satisfaction level of 94 percent, which is unheard of in the industry. And he says it's a direct result of paying his workers $15 an hour.
Again, we have a really broad range support from businesses: restaurants, manufacturing, retail, you name it. They get that it's good for the Colorado economy overall, because when you put money in the pockets of low-wage workers, they put it right back into Main Street. It's good for their business because they get cost-saving benefits. And a lot of our business owners also talk about leveling the playing field in a couple of ways. The average small-business employer is already paying, on average, wages of over $12 an hour. They're basically having to compete with large national chains paying poverty wages. They're supporting Amendment 70 because it levels the playing field in terms of not giving a competitive edge to employers that aren't paying workers enough to meet their basic needs. And it's almost like double jeopardy, since they're also getting hit with additional taxes.
If somebody's working full-time, or even two jobs, and they still can't put food on the table and cover their rent, they're going to have to turn to public services. And when they turn to public services, then you have taxpayers and the businesses that are already doing the right thing having to subsidize those low-wage employees. That's why Amendment 70 is a win for them, as well.
Why did you feel Amendment 70 should be placed in the constitution? The opposition argues that making it a constitutional amendment will prevent it from being adjusted or fixed over time.
This is the only way the State of Colorado can raise the wage, since the voters of Colorado already put it into the constitution [via the aforementioned Initiative 42]. Voters thought it was a good idea to put it into the constitution back in 2006, and a majority of voters think it's a great idea now.