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Denver City Council unanimously approves minimum wage hike starting Jan. 1

Ordinance includes a three-step minimum wage hike through 2022

Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, right, ...
Michael Ciaglo, Special to the Denver Post
Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, right, answers a question during a town hall meeting to discuss the $15 minimum wage proposal for the City and County of Denver at the Justice for All Center in Denver on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

The Denver City Council unanimously increased the citywide minimum wage Monday night to thundering applause throughout its chambers.

The new law requires employers to bump hourly employees to at least $12.85 on Jan. 1, with a second raise to $14.77 following at the start of 2021, and a third to $15.87 in 2022. After that, the new law mandates that it will then be adjusted annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index.

Public comment was overwhelmingly, if not entirely, in favor of the law, which places Denver as the first Colorado city to raise the local minimum wage. Ultimately, the council voted 11-0.

The raises are overdue and while the end goal of $15.87 per hour is a step in the right direction, many said, the council must already consider the next steps.

“Fifteen is going to be rough in two years still,” said Adam Alleman, owner of the Game Lounge in Park Hill. “It’s tough for people to make it out here.”

Initially, the ordinance proposed to mandate the raises in two tiers, reaching $15.87 by 2021, though that plan was mellowed after some criticized it as too aggressive or quick. Mayor Michael Hancock’s office later announced the three-tiered approach and the bill was introduced by Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who called it history in the making Monday night.

“Tonight is about getting parents a few extra hours with their kids,” Kniech said. “It’s about making ends meet. It’s about the chance to stay in your city that you love.”

“This increase to Denver’s minimum wage will provide a little bit of relief for those who are struggling the most — families who must choose between putting food on the table and paying rent or buying medicine,” Hancock said in a statement. “This is a milestone moment for our city.”

Councilman Chris Hinds offered a small amendment to the measure to make clear that unlike state law, the city measure requires that all adults, regardless of their ability or disability, must be paid the minimum wage under the measure. Only certain minors enrolled in certified youth employment programs allowed under the ordinance can be paid up to 15% less than the minimum.

Hinds’ amendment was unanimously accepted by the council.

Kniech and many others lauded the measure as a victory for not only Denver’s working class, but also women and minorities, who so often hold the city’s lowest paying jobs.

Speaking in Spanish and with the help of a translator, Pedro Carillo said he works as a janitor in Denver and, while the measure won’t solve all the city’s problems, it is a step in the right direction.

The federal minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009. The statewide minimum wage will rise to $12 an hour next year, but a new state law enables local governments to set higher minimum wages starting Jan. 1.

Denver’s current minimum wage is $11.10.

For tipped employees, that number is even lower, however. Even with the new law, tipped workers can be paid $3.02 per hour less than the minimum wage.

While the Colorado Restaurant Association has threatened to sue if the ordinance was passed, representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. The organization argued that cities can’t raise their own minimum wages until 2021 under the new state law.

Sonia Riggs, the association’s CEO, previously raised concerns that the minimum wage hike could widen the pay gap between tipped employees and back-of-house staff, often lower earners than their front-of-house counterparts.

In addition, Riggs said businesses’ already thin profit margins could suffer by the mandatory wage increase.

She did, however, praise the three-tiered ordinance over the initial proposal, expressing appreciation for the city’s willingness to move slower.

Alleman said he’s not worried about paying his employees more, however. Ultimately, it should mean that customers spend more money in his business, he said.

Laurie-Ann Mills welled up as she thanked the council for the measure, recalling four decades in the workforce, sometimes “exploited” for little more than $2 an hour. The forthcoming raise should allow Mills and others to be a part of the Denver community and offer enough money for them to grab a sandwich from an old neighborhood coffee shop from time to time, she said.

“We’re not free until all of us are,” said Robel Worku, of the Colorado People’s Alliance, which supported the measure. “When we shift wealth, we shift power” and that’s the way toward justice.

But still another shift will be needed soon, said Councilman Paul Kashmann.

Denver is “getting closer to the point where two people working full time will be able to meet the basic financial needs of a couple living with two children,” Kashmann said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”

For a single parent, however, the city still falls “far, far short.”