The federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 does not go far in covering basic living expenses in many communities. Colorado’s $8.23 minimum hourly rate stretches a bit farther but does not provide for much of a living wage, whereby an individual can pay rent, gas, utilities and food costs on a 40-hour per week salary. Add in child care, medical expenses, clothing, vehicle repair or savings and $17,118 in annual pre-tax pay does not rise to the task. The Colorado Legislature is considering two measures that aim to increase pay in the state – one through a statewide vote and the other by allowing localities to raise the wage floor in their jurisdiction. Either or both would address an enduring challenge for many Coloradans.
State law now prohibits local governments from setting wages higher than the state minimum – a restriction that hamstrings communities where the cost of living far outpaces that of wages. Colorado is home to many such communities, and Durango is among them. La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition is advocating for a $12.40 minimum wage for single adults in the county – a rate that would cover shelter, health care and food. The number increases dramatically when children are involved: The organization estimates that one adult with one child must earn $25.51 an hour in order to pull in a living wage that covers housing, food, child care and health care. With no authority to insist upon improved wages, local and city government is in no position to improve their residents’ lot.
House Bill 1300 would change that by allowing cities and counties to set minimum wages higher than that ensured by the state. It would not compel them to do so but would empower decision-makers at the local level to address what is fundamentally a local issue. The cost of living is far higher in Telluride, Durango or Aspen than in Lamar, Brush or La Junta, and local governments should have the tools to address that differential.
It may well be that the statewide minimum wage is largely insufficient for its earners to cover their basic costs. To address that, Rep. Domenick Moreno, D-Commerce City, is proposing a referendum that asks voters to incrementally increase the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. It is a broadcast approach to increasing the state’s lowest earners’ bottom line and is wholly appropriate for consideration on the ballot.
Minimum wages do not take the entire financial picture into account, and critics of raising them claim that doing so will trigger a correlative increase in the cost of goods and services as small businesses pass along the increase to their customers, thereby cancelling out the benefit of the wage hike. It is not unreasonable to expect some of that reaction, but a one-to-one ratio is difficult to imagine. Nor is it reasonable to expect that a wholesale or community-specific increase in wages will solve all economic inequity problems across Colorado. It is a far more complex challenge than a single solution will remedy. But today’s minimum wage is largely a nonfunctioning attempt to ensure that the state’s most vulnerable workers are not taken advantage of, and $8.23 is not sufficient to do so.