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Boulder County to increase minimum wage in 2024; chambers urge restraint

BOULDER — Boulder County officials said Friday that they plan to increase the minimum wage in unincorporated portions of the county by the start of 2024, and local business leaders are urging them to pump the brakes. 

A group of executives, managers and staff with the Boulder Chamber, Boulder County Latino Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Longmont Chamber of Commerce, Louisville Chamber of Commerce and Superior Chamber of Commerce signed onto a statement this week that said county government leaders are “seeking to rush a decision on raising the current minimum wage before the end of the year,” a path that the group, known as the Northwest Chamber Alliance, called “insensitive and reckless.”

Boulder County Commissioners, in response to a request for comment from BizWest, confirmed for the first time Friday that they plan to boost the minimum wage by 15% to $15.70, effective Jan. 1, 2024. 

“Coming out of a global pandemic, we saw folks in so much hurt. I believe that residents are still hurting,” Boulder County Commissioner Marta Loachamin said, and a minimum-wage increase is one way to help ease some of the economic pain.

“We heard all of this stuff during the pandemic about essential workers and how critical these people are to our society and our community. We saw signs and banners, and people risked their lives to work at the grocery store or to be janitors or to do childcare services,” Boulder County Commissioner Ashley Stolzmann said. “Their reward is that we still haven’t increased their wages.”

In 2019, state lawmakers passed HB19-1210, legislation that allows local cities and counties to increase their minimum wage beyond the state mandate, which for 2023 is $13.65. Increases can only be implemented on Jan. 1 of any given year and are capped at 15% each year. 

Denver was Colorado’s first city to take advantage of the new law. That city’s local minimum wage will jump $1 per hour to $18.29 from $17.29 beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

A divided Fort Collins City Council rejected a local minimum wage hike in May. City staff had presented options that would have boosted the lowest hourly wage for all workers in Fort Collins from the statewide minimum of $13.65 to either $16.65 or $17.29 by Jan. 1, 2026. However, after forceful but civil debate on both sides among workers, business owners and council members, the issue failed on a 4-3 vote.

Worker-advocacy group Boulder Area Labor Council’s goal is to boost the minimum wage throughout Boulder County, including in cities and towns, to $25 by 2028.

“Boulder County can do better to support under-paid workers,” said Morgan Royal with the Boulder County Self-sufficiency Wage Coalition, a labor council-affiliated group. “We hope that Boulder County and municipalities across the county can pass a minimum wage that is inline with the needs of workers.”

Boulder Chamber president John Tayer told BizWest that discussions with municipal leaders have led the business community to believe that potential minimum-wage hikes in cities and towns would likely go into effect in 2025. Meanwhile, the county has its sights set on Jan. 1, 2024.

The county said Friday that the commissioners will hold a public hearing on the issue on Nov. 2. In advance of the hearing, Boulder County officials are planning a town hall on Oct. 12 in Niwot.

In response to criticism that Boulder County leaders are fast-tracking a decision on the wage increase, Loachamin said, “To me, it doesn’t seem quick.”

County staff and officials are capable of fully studying the issue and communicating with stakeholders in the remaining months of 2023, she said.

The notion that Boulder County’s intent to raise the minimum wage in 2024 comes as a surprise to business leaders who are now left without sufficient time to prepare is “a false flag,” Boulder Area Labor Council president Geof Cahoon said. “They’ve known about this; we’ve been meeting with them about this for months.”

Tayer said that business leaders are merely urging county officials to take their time with the vetting process, not necessarily opposing the concept of a minimum-wage increase. 

“We are always open to conversations about how we support our workforce in addressing appropriate compensation needs. We’ve demonstrated that in the past with our support of previous minimum-wage increases,” he said. “That said, it is inappropriate to rush a decision on such a consequential action for our businesses. We would expect that our elected officials would want to make sure they understand the impacts such a minimum-wage increase would have on businesses, especially during a period when they are dealing with so many economic uncertainties” related to the COVID-19 recovery, inflation, tax hikes and a potential recession on the horizon. 

“Our businesses have gone through a lot in the past few years,” Longmont Chamber CEO Scott Cook said. “We need to be very careful about adding another challenge to these employers.”

Business leaders “are getting questions about whether we oppose minimum-wage increases,” Cook said. “We don’t have that position at the moment. We have the position that we want to engage in a dialog, a process where we sit down with elected officials and gather information from our businesses. We plan to do that.”

While chamber officials aren’t currently speaking out against the concept of minimum-wage increases, the Northwest Chamber Alliance’s statement provides some insight into which side of the wage-hike debate they may ultimately fall.

“To blithely add significant additional cost to (business owners’) bottom-line expenses and inject imbalanced cross-jurisdictional competition, completely disregards the findings from studies in other communities of the further negative business and employee impacts from ill-considered minimum wage increases,” the alliance said. 

A committee within “the Boulder County Consortium of Cities has been convening a group of local elected officials in the Denver metro area to gather information on the legislation and explore opportunities to develop a regional process to achieve a common minimum wage in Boulder, Broomfield, Adams, and Jefferson counties,” according to Boulder County’s website. 

“For local cities to adopt their own minimum wage, they must consult with surrounding local governments and engage stakeholders, including chambers of commerce, small and large businesses, businesses that employ tipped workers, workers, labor unions, and community groups. To start this process, the Boulder County Consortium of Cities Local Wage Working Group hosted a Local Wage Webinar on Wednesday, September 21, 2022 to hear presentations about the state legislation, the cost of living and wage history in the Denver metro area, and the economic rationale for increasing wages.”

Municipal governments around Boulder County have held minimum-wage work sessions this year to hear from representatives of the Consortium of Cities, labor leaders and business groups.

At a July Boulder City Council meeting, Alejandra Beatty, a representative of the CWA Local 7799 union, stressed to city officials “how important it is that we join the county, get going and get (a minimum-wage increase) done by the end of the year. We have a lot of our workers who are continuing to suffer, not being able to get their bills paid, not being able to support themselves, not being able to live in Boulder.”

Many stakeholders agree that a regional approach to addressing the minimum wage is the preferred pathway.

“To respond to the rising cost of living, the county continues to consult with local municipalities and neighboring counties to work towards consistency in the region and reinforce our community’s ability to attract and retain a locally qualified workforce, reduce competition across the region for workers, and contribute to the quality of life for many area workers,” Boulder County Commissioners said in a statement Friday. “The county is aware of the many pressures on local workers and businesses alike and looks forward to learning more as economic conditions evolve and future plans are considered.”

Stolzmann said she “would love to call on any other communities who would like to join us. The more collaboration around this, the better.”

Source: BizWest