Colorado House Democrats pushed a measure through their legislative chamber Thursday that would allow cities and counties to raise their minimum wage above the level of the state’s — despite warnings about job loss to automation, claims of socialism and a party-line vote that seems likely to doom the bill in the Republican-controlled Senate.
House Bill 1368, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Jovan Melton of Aurora and Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, has divided much of the business community from left-leaning policy organizations like the Bell Policy Center and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Supporters say local officials in cities where people are struggling to afford housing and medical care — cities like Denver and Boulder — can help lower-income workers by requiring them to be paid more, while business leaders say that disparate minimum wages will cause employee shifts away from lower-income cities in need of workers and will make it difficult for company owners who could have to pay workers different wages for doing the same jobs just miles apart.
Those debates played out on the House floor as well before Democrats passed the bill on 36-29 vote above the objections of each of the Republicans in the chamber. And they drove home the wide ideological gap that is likely to keep the bill from becoming law as long as the GOP holds one chamber of the Legislature.
Several Republican representatives said that the people who would be hurt most by HB 1368 would be the lowest-wage workers, who would see their hours cut or their jobs eliminated as companies sought to balance the higher costs of business with revenues that aren’t likely to rise with the increase in minimum wage. And they warned that companies also would look to compensate for higher labor costs by replacing people with machines, much like some fast-food restaurants are doing by adding kiosks to take orders in place of employees.
“They’ll find out these positions can be done automatically,” said Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, of the lowest-paid workers. “(The machines) don’t go on strike or get sick. They don’t come in hungover. They don’t go to 4/20 rallies.”
Colorado’s minimum wage currently stands at $10.20 but is in the process of going up to $12 by the start of 2020 after state residents approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 increasing the pay floor in incremental steps.
Still, a number of communities throughout the metro area feature significant percentages of their population that must pay between 25 and 50 percent of their income in housing costs, partly because the cost of housing has gone up much more quickly since 2010 than salaries have risen. Danielson noted that the average age of a minimum-wage worker in Colorado is 35 and that 88 percent of the lowest-wage workers are over the age of 20, attempting to dispel the belief that only students seeking summer jobs are getting paid at the bottom of the pay scale.
And Melton said that while he’s heard the complaints of business leaders like those of National Federation of Independent Business state director Tony Gagliardi about the bill, he’s more concerned with the complaints of home-health workers who say they have to hold down two jobs in order to pay their bills.
“Yes, I’ve heard that NFIB doesn’t like the bill. You know who does like the bill? Workers,” Melton said. “We’re talking about people who have kids, who have families, who are trying to make a livable wage.”The bill has not been assigned to a committee yet in the Senate.