Throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic and for the foreseeable future, Denver’s small businesses face unprecedented challenges. These businesses have stepped up for our community during the pandemic, providing continuity of services and employment during dire personal and financial difficulties. Unfortunately, many have had to shutter their doors and/or lay workers off. I have so much gratitude and respect for the efforts businesses are undertaking to remain open and will continue to work for relief at the city level and push for necessary aid at the state and federal level.
In November 2019, Denver City Council passed Council Bill 19-1237. This law aimed to address growing issues of wage inequity by raising the minimum wage from $11.10/hour to $12.85/hour starting Jan. 1, 2020; $14.77/hour on Jan. 1, 2021; and to $15.87/hour on Jan. 1, 2022. After 2022, the minimum wage will be adjusted according to the Consumer Price Index. When that bill passed, we had no idea about the looming crisis that would threaten the existence of so many Denver businesses.
I realize what an increase of the minimum wage at this time may mean for small businesses, particularly restaurants. However, until the state makes changes to HB-1210 that permits municipalities to regulate the minimum wage on more ad-hoc timeframes, I don’t see any options for flexibility on Denver’s scheduled increases. I did explore whether there was support on council to consider an amendment to push back the first tiered wage increase to mid-year, however, there wasn’t support to extend for a full year and the aforementioned state law prohibits such changes other than during a January timeline.
Furthermore, we don’t have a policy approach under the law that can single out one industry from all others that will be required to implement the wage increase. I don’t believe the state legislature would consider exploring flexibility on this matter until after Jan. 1 when they go back to their annual legislative session. To reiterate, until that time, which is after the scheduled increase in the city’s minimum wage, we do not have flexibility to make any changes or re-calibrate future tiered increases. However, we should look at mid-year data to see what affect this has had on businesses and employees.
In the meantime, instead of pursuing last-minute changes to the already-adopted minimum wage law, Denver should navigate a balanced COVID-19 recovery that supports businesses, fosters job creation, bolsters economic activity and protects vulnerable workers and their families. I voted in favor of the minimum wage increase and I recognize that an increase to the minimum wage is critical to help folks in our city keep up with the costs of living. I also encourage the city to continue its commitment to funding and resources for small businesses, to continue supporting restaurants with permitting and funding for outdoor spaces, and making additional emergency funding available for the small business emergency relief fund.
Supporting local businesses in our community is more important than ever before. As you are able, please take your commerce to treasured neighborhood restaurants and unique, local, retail stores. You may need a jacket and to sit nearby a heat lamp, but there are delicious meals and thoughtful gifts to be had all around Denver.
Deborah Ortega is a councilmember at-large on the Denver City Council. At-large council members represent the city as a whole. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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