Denver city officials face their first public meeting on $15-an-hour minimum wage

October 2, 2019

On Wednesday night, Denver’s city leaders got their first in-person taste of public opinion about a proposed minimum wage hike.

The town-hall meeting was organized by the city and hosted in the west Denver office of the Service Employees International Union Local 105. The audience was full of purple-shirted union supporters, and most of the questions pushed the city to raise wages still higher. But city officials acknowledged that backlash from business owners was building.

Council members Jamie Torres, Jolon Clark, Kevin Flynn and Robin Kniech attended, as did Mayor Michael Hancock. Kniech and Hancock have led the charge.

“We have had the taxpayers shoulder a lot of the responsibility for picking up the services that come along with having a concentration of low-wage jobs in the city,” Flynn said. “And my view is that it’s about time to ask the employer sector in picking up some of that and sharing it.”

Under the proposal, Denver would increase its minimum wage for all employers to $13.80 in 2020 and to $15.87 by 2021. After that, it would raise with the cost of living.

“It’s about time. It needs to put a pep in its step,” said AltaNakiah Reese, a home care worker who makes minimum wage.

The changes would have to take effect Jan. 1 of each year under the state law.

“If we’re going to do this, it has to be Jan. 1. And if it’s not going to be this Jan. 1 … we have to wait an entire year,” said Evan Dreyer, Hancock’s deputy chief of staff. He added: “The cost of living’s not going to wait. The cost of homes is not going to wait.”

Denver is the first Colorado city to publicly consider its own minimum wage, a power granted to cities by a new state law. Meanwhile, the current statewide wage will rise to $12 next year.

Restaurant owners have emerged as an early opponent of the bill, warning it will cut their thin margins. Hancock acknowledged that some businesses were saying “it still might be too soon, too fast.”

And one attendee asked what the city would do to prevent companies from simply cutting hours or jobs. Some employers have told the city that they plan to cut staffing, Dreyer said.

Kniech argued that higher wages would circulate back into the economy, boosting jobs as an estimated 100,000 workers gained more spending power. Dreyer said that those concerns were proving minimal in other wage-raising cities.

Nationwide, the early research on minimum wages has shown mixed results. One report on Seattle showed that employers may have cut hours for low-income workers, but a broader study suggested that higher minimum wages didn’t hurt employment.

For several people in attendance, the proposal didn’t go far enough in the face of dauntingly high rent, child care and health care costs.

“You’re playing catch-up, but people here are becoming homeless at the end of the day while we’re playing catch-up,” said Yolanda Loftis, who works for a Metro Caring food bank.

Kniech said that going straight to $15 would “be too big of a leap,” even if it were allowed legally. But she urged her constituents to keep pushing. “What I need you to say is ‘This is good, and I believe we can do better,’ and I need you to stay at the table,” she told the crowd.

And she jokingly acknowledged that the rest of the meetings might not be so friendly to the proposal. The conversation “might be almost as fun” as the contentious debate over the city’s recent affordable housing law, she quipped.

The city will host five more public meetings before the City Council potentially votes on the bill.

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