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Colorado minimum wage reaches $12. Is it enough to live in La Plata County?

Advocates urge local governments to use new powers to increase wages even more
The minimum wage in Colorado has gone up about 44% in four years to $12 an hour. Some advocates think a higher minimum wage in La Plata County is needed.

Four years of minimum wage increases in Colorado have put more money into the pockets of La Plata County workers, but some argue it is not enough.

Minimum wage increased incrementally from $8.31 in 2016 to $12 an hour as of Jan. 1, a 44% rise. But it remains below the $13.25 an hour a single adult must earn in La Plata County to be self-sufficient, according to Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.

La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition plans to encourage La Plata County commissioners and Durango City Council to consider requiring businesses to pay a higher minimum wage than the state to ensure more people can sustain themselves, said Gloria Kaasch-Buerger, Thrive! Employer Recognition Program coordinator. The nonprofit would like to see the local “minimum wage” equal to or come close to the La Plata County “living wage,” she said.

“It’s really about having families be able to live in La Plata County without having to go on welfare to live here,” she said.

The state of Colorado gave counties and cities the power to raise the minimum wage within their jurisdictions as of Jan. 1. Local governments can raise the minimum wage by up to $1.75 or 15% each year.

If La Plata County or the city took such a step, it could bolster the local economy by recirculating more money as workers spend their paychecks, Kaasch-Buerger said.

Any additional increase in the minimum wage locally should be planned to allow businesses to adjust, said Laura Lewis Marchino, Region 9 executive director.

“I think because the wages have been raised, we need to let that lie a little,” she said.

Raising the minimum wage can be tough for businesses because the additional cost can keep them from expanding or investing in their business in other ways, she said. But it also can be positive for businesses by reducing turnover and the costs associated with training new employees, she said.

Eric Malone, president of The Payroll Department, said the recent increases have boosted wages for those working at some restaurants, gas stations and retail shops. But the steady increases have also forced business owners to make other changes, he said.

“A lot of them come to us and say: ‘I need to raise prices,’” he said.

For some employers, the minimum wage increases did not make a difference because they were already paying $12 an hour or higher to attract employees in the tight labor market, said Robert Whitson, owner of Express Employment Professionals.

Express works with a wide spectrum of businesses, such as construction companies, government offices and banks, he said. Express also works with companies in need of general labor.

Whitson said he thought a higher local minimum wage is likely unnecessary and could face some push back from the business community.

Many businesses prefer to start workers at a lower wage and then reward them with higher pay based on performance, he said.

“I have had people that have started at $12 and are currently making $19,” he said.

Grassburger co-founder Ed Kileen said while raising the minimum wage can feel good, it’s important to look at whether employees will actually see any benefit or if they will just end up spending more as prices rise.

“The real question is: ‘What’s the increase in purchasing power, if there is any, or is it just a zero-sum game?” he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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