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Protestors hold signs advocating for raising the minimum wage during a rally in Los Angeles on April 15, 2015. —Courtesy of Shutterstock

Inside the Fight to Increase Colorado’s Minimum Wage

Despite local and nationwide protests, a $15 minimum wage is still just a dream for local low-wage workers. 

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Charla Hoffman has been an in-home health aide for decades. For the last 15 years, the 61-year-old Lakewood resident has worked at the same agency and made the same hourly rate—$8.23 an hour, which is Colorado’s minimum wage. In December, she got her first raise. She now makes $9 an hour.

“My people love me,” says Hoffman. “They love my cooking, and I have a good time.”

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Hoffman works approximately 70 hours a week and receives no overtime. Her weekly take-home pay of around $600 is barely enough to cover food for her family and rent on the small apartment she shares with her husband, her disabled daughter, and her daughter’s two sons, who Hoffman has custody of. In particularly bad months, Hoffman pawns her jewelry or visits a food bank to survive until her next paycheck.

In February, Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, an advocacy group, filed paperwork with the Colorado Secretary of State proposing a ballot initiative that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020. The move follows several protests at the end of last year—one outside the Denver City and County Building, and another at a local McDonald’s, both in November—organized by Denver’s Fight for $15 movement, which advocates for higher wages and the right of low-income workers to unionize.

Efforts last year to increase the minimum wage failed, however the Fight for $15 movement has picked up steam nationwide, with protests taking place in hundreds of cities across the country. Sixteen states agreed to increase their minimum wages in 2016 to various degrees—although only two, California and Massachusetts, made the jump to double digits ($10).

As Hoffman’s story indicates, Colorado’s minimum wage remains woefully inadequate for individuals and families living in Denver, or almost anywhere else in the state. In June, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) released a report on the state’s Self-Sufficiency Standard—the hourly wage rate required for families of different sizes to support themselves without public or private support in counties across the state. The report found that the amount of income needed for families to fulfill their basic needs has increased in all Colorado counties between 2001 and 2015, and the minimum wage barely makes a dent.

“In no county can a family of any shape or size make ends meet on minimum wage,” says Aubrey Hasvold, family economic security program associate at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “And then in only three counties—Bent, Otero, and Custer—can an individual make it on minimum wage.”

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Hasvold continues: “Right now in Colorado, the minimum wage is $8.23 an hour and that equals about $17,000 per year. Let’s say a single parent is trying to take care of a family of three, so they’ve got two kids. That puts them well below the poverty level of about $20,000 per year. It’s definitely not enough.”

In fact, according to the CCLP’s report, a single parent with one preschooler and one school-aged child living in Denver would need to earn $27.18 per hour to be economically self-sufficient. The minimum wage is particularly lacking in the face of Colorado’s skyrocketing cost of living, which has increased by 53 percent since 2001, mostly due to rising health care, childcare, and housing costs.

Colorado’s economy is one of the strongest in the country—Business Insider ranked it number three for quarter four of 2015—but much of the state’s job growth has occurred in low-paying occupations.

“On the whole, we’re very strong,” says Chris Stiffler, an economist the Colorado Fiscal Institute. “But I think people don’t look deeper into the data and don’t see that a lot of the growth in jobs, particularly around Denver, are service jobs, which pay less benefits and pay a lot lower wages.”

According to Stiffler’s research, 26.2 percent of Colorado’s jobs in 2013 were low-wage positions. In 2001, only 23.7 of Colorado jobs were low wage. Today, 42 percent of Colorado residents—and more than 300,000 Denverites—work in low-wage positions that pay less than $12 an hour. CFI research also indicates that home health care aides like Hoffman have actually seen their real wages decline by 14 percent since 2001.

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Opponents of minimum wage hikes argue that the increased labor costs will force businesses to lay off or hire fewer workers. So far, the data indicates that small hikes have minimal effects on unemployment. The jury, however, is still out on the economic effects of more significant wages hikes, such as the type advocated by Fight for $15.

“It’s hard to answer [what the effects of a large minimum wage hike in Denver would be] without knowing what the specifics of a proposal would be,” says Stiffler. “But you see mountains of data saying that small increments in minimum wage have little or no negative effects on unemployment.”

For people like Hoffman and an increasing number of Coloradans, even minor hikes in the minimum wage could make a big difference. “I work, and then I go to bed,” says Hoffman. “I don’t understand why they can’t figure out I also need my time with my family.”

(Read an interview with a Walmart employee amidst their 2014 fight for a livable wage)

—Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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