Debate over pay raises wages on in Aurora, rest of Colorado


AURORA | When she started as a home healthcare worker two decades ago, Ethel Ayo could count on wages of about $13 an hour and as much as $21 an hour — if she worked a weekend shift.

These days, the 60-year-old Aurora woman said she gets about $10 an hour because she has experience. But newcomers who help feed, bathe and care for the elderly or disabled start around $9 an hour.  “I guess we are a dime a dozen,” she said. “But we are valuable people because we are doing valuable work.”

When voters hit the polls in a few weeks, Ayo is hoping they say “yes” to a gradual increase in the state’s minimum wage.

“That’s what I hope. That way, I can at least make enough money so I can pay my rent,” she said.

Ayo — like many workers and business owners in Aurora — is watching the Amendment 70 campaign closely this fall.

The Aurora Chamber and Aurora Economic Development Council — along with Mayor Steve Hogan — have all taken public stances against the amendment. On the other side, nine local businesses have publicly backed the measure.

If voters approve Amendment 70, the state’s minimum wage, currently at $8.31 an hour, would climb to $12 an hour by 2020.

Folks like Ayo say that’s crucial to people trying to get by on minimum- and low-wage jobs at a time when housing costs in the metro area are soaring.

But opponents of the plan say it’s far more complicated than backers make it out to be, and would actually hurt the working-class people it aims to help.

Alfonso Nunez, owner of La Cueva Mexican restaurant on East Colfax Avenue, said the measure would be brutal for his Aurora eatery.

“I’d probably close,” Nunez said.

Nunez said his back-of-the-house staff — cooks and dishwashers — already make more than the minimum wage now, so the measure wouldn’t have a huge impact on that side.

The real issue, Nunez said, is the effect the measure would have on his servers, who today make between $25 and $30 in tips, he said. The hike could mean the restaurant would go to a service fee instead of tips, Nunez said, and that would likely mean less for the servers.

Nunez appeared in a commercial opposing Amendment 70 earlier this year and said he received a serious backlash for it. Still, Nunez said he’d do it again.

Colorado isn’t the only state with a minimum wage hike on the ballot this fall. Arizona, Maine and Washington have similar questions coming two years after voters in five other states passed minimum wage hikes. South Dakota voters are taking a second crack at wages, two years after raising them to $8.50 an hour.

Is it a slam dunk that this year’s measures will pass, too? Maybe. Even classic opponents to a higher minimum wage — restaurant associations and small-business groups — are running muted campaigns to oppose the wage measures.

“It almost always passes when it gets on the ballot,” said Jerold Waltman, a political scientist at Baylor University who has written extensively about minimum wage and politics. “Most Americans have a fundamental sense of fairness, that if you work, you ought to make enough to make a living wage on. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on this.”

In Colorado and Washington, the opposing campaigns are arguing that minimum wages should be lower in rural, lower-cost areas.

“It’s not the cities, the big businesses that are going to suffer,” said Tyler Sandberg of Colorado’s wage opposition campaign, called Keep Colorado Working. “A big corporation in Denver is going to be treated the same as a small mom-and-pop business” in a small town, he said.

Labor unions support the wage hikes and want South Dakota voters to reject the law lowering wages for workers under 18. In many states they have enlisted clergy members and other advocates for the poor to their side.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.