After postponing discussion and asking for more community engagement, Fort Collins City Council indicated support for implementing a local minimum wage in 2024 at a work session Tuesday night.
If council implemented a local minimum wage, state law requires it go into effect on Jan. 1 the following year.
Currently, the city follows the state’s minimum wage, which is $13.65 per hour and $10.63 per hour for tipped workers. In Fort Collins, a living wage for a single adult working full-time is $18.92 and a living wage for a full-time, dual-income family with a child is $21.85 per adult, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At the work session, council was given two different options for what the scale could look like. Each had differing speeds at which they would get to the maximum amount, and different maximum amounts. The pay scales introduced by staff were the same as presented in November:
- Option 1, based on council feedback, would increase minimum wage to $18.50 by 2026.
- Option 2, based on feedback from the business community, would get to $16.65 by 2026.
A third scenario sent by a citizen and received by council Tuesday afternoon was also thrown in the mix and ended up receiving the most support among council members.
That option — which would get the minimum wage to $17.29 by 2026 — was “halfway between options one and two,” according to Colorado State University postdoctoral researcher Emily Gallichote, the person who sent council the email.
Gallichote's option would require the city to raise its current minimum wage by $3.64 over the course of the next three years. Estimating that the state's minimum wage increase, which is tied to the consumer price index, would total $1.56 over the next three years, Gallichote said Fort Collins would only be increasing by an additional $2.08 under her proposal.
Per state law, local governments are only allowed to increase wages annually by $1.75 or 15% — whichever is higher — until the wage hits what the local government approved.
“Unlike many of the more privileged members of our community, minimum wage workers often don’t have the time to be engaged in city politics, and we need to ensure their voice is heard,” Gallichote wrote to council in her email suggesting the third option, which was obtained by the Coloradoan.
“While we understand the challenges that staff face in reaching minimum wage workers, our city’s lowest earners, and those most strongly impacted by low wages, we hope City Council can advocate for them.”
A large part of the reason council decided to postpone voting on whether to implement a local minimum wage in November was because they wanted to get more input from low-earning workers on the issue.
According to city documents and Tuesday’s presentation, efforts to engage with low-income earners weren’t particularly successful in terms of numbers, but “the conversations were valuable.”
That input wasn’t the only information that was hard to get.
Ginny Sawyer, project and policy manager who has been researching this issue for council, said she also struggled to get information from Denver and Denver County — the only places that have implemented a local minimum wage since it was legalized in 2019 — on the results of those efforts.
“No one was yet comfortable in making any determinations because the landscape is still, in their minds, not stabilized or they are nervous to say, I don't know,” Sawyer said.
Fort Collins began paying its city employees a $15 minimum wage this year — even though it wasn’t required — and City Manager Kelly DiMartino was also hesitant to give higher pay credit in improved recruitment efforts, even though early information indicates they’re having more success already this year than last.
“While we are seeing some improvements again in how readily we're able to hire people this year, what we don't know is if we can solely attribute that or not (to increased pay),” DiMartino said.
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Council remains on track to vote in May, members leaned toward middle option
After discussion on the topic, council members asked staff to bring forward at least two wage options and said one of those options should be based on Gallichote’s proposal.
Mayor pro-tem Emily Francis and council member Kelly Ohlson supported that third option, with Ohlson saying it “hits a sweet spot” between the proposed options. Ohlson said when it comes down to it, this issue is a high priority for him and he hopes council moves forward with something — even if it’s less than he would like to see — rather than delaying again.
Francis said the third option “seems reasonable” and in between what businesses and workers would like to see, so she supports it.
Council member Tricia Canonico suggested that if council were to move forward with the third option, staff should confirm the $17.29 figure, which is based off of Denver’s goal three years ago, is right for Fort Collins in terms of cost-of-living expenses and adjust it if not.
Council members Susan Gutowsky, Shirley Peel and Mayor Jeni Arndt gave the most pushback to the increase, with Peel saying she’s “still not there yet on this.”
“I'm still looking at all these questions and trying to figure out the best way through this,” she said, adding that she was concerned, too, that paying minors who may work part-time the required minimum wage could result in wage increases that businesses couldn’t keep up with for other employees to address equity issues.
However, if the local minimum wage were to pass, there are some exceptions in state law that address that concern. Minors could be paid 15% less than the adopted wage and the wage for tipped employees would be $3.02 less.
Arndt said she was worried about the impact it would have on small businesses in Fort Collins and that “we won't be helping the people that we're trying to help.” She expressed that she’d be more in support of a regional minimum wage out of concern that local businesses would have to raise prices to combat the wage increase and shoppers could just go one town over.
“If we did it regionally, it would be more fair,” she said. “Our small businesses wouldn't be in a (competitive) situation with other small businesses.”
There have been regional conversations in Boulder County that Fort Collins has been involved in and is encouraging Larimer County to engage in, but it’s unclear when that would come to fruition and if other communities closer to Fort Collins are interested in the conversation.
Gutowsky had concerns similar to Arndt, saying, “I don't think that we can fully understand the impact that this would have on particular businesses,” referring mostly to local, small businesses.
Council member Julie Pignataro didn’t express support or opposition but asked that at least two scales be brought to a first reading and for a more clear depiction of what the increases would look like in juxtaposition to what the state increases would be.
Council is set to vote on whether to implement a local minimum wage on May 16.
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Molly Bohannon covers Fort Collins government for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.