Guest opinion: More time, thought needed in move to higher minimum wage

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Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023

By John Tayer

I was enjoying dinner the other night at one of my favorite local establishments. I  spent much of my time discussing the parade of miserables that the immigrant restaurant owner is experiencing.

It has become standard fare in my role at the Boulder Chamber. The businesses may be different, but the refrain is similar: The cost of rent — due to rising property taxes — has become an enormous burden. The price of materials (when they are available) are imposing an enormous additional expense. New state regulations, such as family leave and sick time policies, are adding both significant costs and administrative headaches.

Many of those new expenses only came in after a predictable timeframe. Now throw into the mix a rushed proposal by the Boulder County Commissioners to blithely raise the minimum wage for businesses in unincorporated Boulder County, while trying to pressure other incorporated communities to join them, and you can understand why their seeming insensitivity to businesses concerns is so troubling. These are not crocodile tears.

Here are just a few example responses to a recent survey of regional businesses regarding the proposed minimum wage increase:

Restaurant: “Why so rushed? This is going to put me out of business.”
Accounting Firm: “I’m super concerned about our clients and the ability to stay in business!”
Child Care Provider (translated from Spanish to English): “For home child care providers, the payment is minimal, and if it is increased for parents, it is difficult for them to have a way to pay.”
Retail Store: “I am already having to compete with online shops that don’t have to pay anyone to work and my prices need to compete. It’s a big struggle for brick and mortars to compete.”
Brewery: “If this were to occur, we would have to move our business.”
Restaurant: “I already don’t make enough money to cover my bills the way I used to, and the only people in my organization of 120+ employees under $15 per hour are high school students.”
Education Services: “Increasing the minimum wage is not necessarily a bad decision, but providing adequate planning time to implement is critical.”

Admittedly, about a third of our surveyed local business leaders are sympathetic to a proposed minimum wage increase. Our business community understands the critical economic and social importance of addressing income inequality issues. It’s also why the Boulder Chamber was the only peer organization to support the most recent statewide minimum wage increase measure.

While we’ve always welcomed the ongoing dialogue about future minimum wage increase, this is not an issue to take lightly. There are consequential impacts to businesses, with varying effects on certain sectors of our economy and possible long-term negative ramifications for our workforce. In Minneapolis, for example, a holistic analysis of the impacts of the minimum wage increase in sectors such as retail and restaurants found that jobs were lost, hours went down and workers took home less pay in the process.

The Boulder Chamber and our colleagues in the Northwest Chamber Alliance have been hearing for a while of rumored conversations among appointed local representatives to the Boulder County Consortium of Cities about raising the minimum wage across our county. Ultimately, after open public dialogue during Boulder City Council discussion of the issue in May of this year, they outlined their commitment to a thoughtful, countywide process for thorough engagement and consideration of the impacts – both positive and negative – of raising our minimum wage.

We might also expand the discussion to other mechanisms for addressing the needs of our workforce.The Boulder Chamber recently co-sponsored with Community Foundation of Boulder County, Sister Carmen Community Center, OUR Center, EFFA and others a Self-Sufficiency Standard forum to understand the true cost of living for our workforce. No one was surprised to hear from the forum’s assembled experts that a $13.65 per hour paycheck won’t cut it in Boulder.

While wage increases may be a positive benefit for some employees, the resulting income increase may suddenly cut other workers – disproportionately women and communities of color – off from desperately needed food, energy and childcare assistance programs. The result can be a net loss of support resources for the workers we all want to see succeed. The forum experts also told us that additional subsidies for housing and childcare would have as large, if not larger, impact on families than a rise in the minimum wage.

That’s why we were shocked by the Boulder County Commissioners’ decision to forgo the mutually beneficial process the Boulder City Council authorized and to announce a proposed wage increase in the next three and a half months. Their sudden decision undermines the trust that was building between our elected leaders and impacted businesses in the drive to strike the delicate balance between economic and workforce goals. It also fails to take account of the competitive disadvantage they will create for businesses in unincorporated Boulder County that a collaborative regional approach to the minimum wage increase would avoid.

Proponents of an expedited wage increase point to an interesting but flawed Colorado Department of Labor report on Denver’s minimum wage increase. That report looks positive until one digs just below the surface. A broadly sweeping categorization of rising wages and employment figures for a city that lost an enormous number of jobs across a wide swath of industry sectors during the pandemic doe snot provide the type of insight that is necessary to understand what Denver’s minimum wage increase during the COVID recovery period has meant to restaurants, retailers, nonprofits and other impacted business and their employees.

To be very clear, the Boulder Chamber knows that business cannot succeed without a thriving workforce. We also seek an environment where our employees can sustain a comfortable lifestyle for them and their families. We know that the potential negative impacts on our workers, businesses and economy of a minimum wage increase are not always intuitive, nor should they be taken lightly.

With those shared goals and understandings in mind, we’re ready to roll up our sleeves in the effort to address the challenge of balancing self-sufficiency with a vital economy. Let’s get this right and be a model of thoughtful process for engaging all stakeholders in our analysis of a proposed minimum wage increase.

To repeat the words of a local business owner: Why is this being rushed when the consequences can be so grave, for businesses and their employees?

John Tayer is the President and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce


Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. John strongly implies that the cost of rent for businesses in Boulder is entirely due to rising property taxes. Is this the whole story? It seems to me the cost of rent has always been exhorbitant, and I don’t think our property taxes in Boulder or Colorado in general are higher than other states, but I’m no expert on this subject. I would love to see some comparative anaylsis on property taxes and cost of rent for businesses in various communities. I would guess that Boulder is an outlier when it comes to cost of rent. Are landlords for business properties profitting in ways that are unjust similar to landlords who profiitted greatly from the huge rent increases in residential properties in the past few years in Boulder?

  2. The landlords in Boulder are the reason small businesses go out of business AND the reason everyone needs higher wages. Look around Boulder and you will see that the incredibly high-profit landlords make such enormous profits that they rarely bother to negotiate when spaces stay empty for long periods of time, they get tax write offs and they make enough in general to go without leasing out many of their properties. After all, if you lower the rent on some leases oh my then everyone will want more reasonable leases!

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