EDITORIAL: The timing is dead wrong for an Aurora minimum wage hike, and so is the outrage

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A few city leaders leapt to histrionics this week over a proposal to boost Aurora’s minimum wage next year — by about 30 cents over the state minimum next year.

“Restaurants and many other local businesses are scratching and clawing just to make it to the other side of the pandemic, and they’re desperate for cash to stay afloat,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner said in an op-ed published this week in Sentinel Colorado.

We agree. As one of those hard-hit and struggling small businesses, we can sympathize with others trying to find a way to hang on as the pandemic crisis continues to pummel small operations.

But small-businesses owners aren’t the only ones “desperate for cash to stay afloat.” Tens of thousands of “hard-hit” workers and their families are also on the verge of breaking.

Where’s the fury there?

We’ve seen no one on the city council write to this newspaper or make a scene on social media because the price of food at local grocery stores climbs every week. We’ve seen no grandstanding over planned utility price hikes, hitting small businesses and consumers alike when they’re already down.

Mayor Mike Coffman took to social media, incensed that councilmembers Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano would push for a minimum wage hike that he says would hit minorities hard in Aurora, because many small businesses are minority owned.

Coffman overlooks that for every minority who owns a business, tens of thousands more struggle to buy food or pay rent because they must work for wages that don’t come close to providing even a meager subsistence in Aurora. He ignores how many thousands of minorities and immigrants must work two or even three minimum-wage jobs to survive.

Often duplicitous business leader rally behind anti-immigrant-worker sentiment but thrive on the cheap labor provided by documented and undocumented immigrants eager to have any job no matter how low paying it is. Many on one hand champion President Donald Trump’s sinister, anti-immigrant rhetoric focusing on “saving” American jobs. But they literally profit on the pools of desperate workers who line up for low-paying jobs and keep the market level of wages depressed.

The reality is that when it comes to low-wage workers, they are expected to suck it up when every other expense hike imposed on restaurants or retailers is paid and simply seen as the cost of doing business.

The outrage here over the mistreatment of minorities rings hollow when those so flabbergasted by the proposal have scoffed at the idea of rent control in an effort to keep “struggling and “desperate” minority and non-minority residents from becoming homeless.

We agree that minimum-wage increases do not bankrupt businesses, nor do they reduce jobs. We disagree, however, that this is the right time and the right way to lift the minimum wage higher.

We’ve argued against statewide minimum-wage hikes because Colorado is a varied and disparate state. The cost of living in Aurora is vastly different from the cost of living in Swink. Communities should set a minimum wage, but not micro-communities.

While the schedule proposed in this Aurora bill may make sense, it doesn’t make sense for Aurora to raise the minimum wage against neighboring communities. Such a move, which Denver did last year, only pits businesses against each other, creating market and employment disruptions.

Franchises, often unable to raise prices, are unfairly penalized by these municipal wage hikes because they are unable to pass along higher labor costs to consumers, which must happen.

Ideally, the state would create employment zones based on communities of interest, such as metro Denver, metro Colorado Springs and others. Voters statewide, within those districts, could then sanction minimum wages for specific zones.

In a state that agrees on less each year, that’s unlikely.

At a minimum, large municipalities such as Aurora, Denver, Centennial, Arvada, Westminster and Lakewood would agree on and synchronize hikes in the minimum wage, creating the critical mass needed to pull the rest of the region along.

That will take leadership.

More important, city lawmakers should set this measure aside because of the bad timing.

With pandemic infections surging, even as this measure gets heard on Monday, the stability of every business in the city is already tenuous at best. Even though the bulk of the commercial enterprises in the city pay above minimum wage and would be unaffected, anything adding to uncertainty, confusion or disruption impacts every business and resident in Aurora.

Equally, until the election is finalized and the next Congress and state Legislature give a clear signal of what kind of aid, and how much, will be available to floundering businesses, anything affecting possible disruptions should be held.

We absolutely agree that everyone in Aurora and the metro area would benefit from a mandatory boost to the minimum wage. And we are equally adamant that this is the wrong time to consider the hike or impose it.