Aurora minimum wage hike proposal hits hurdle, but likely to move forward

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AURORA | A plan to raise Aurora’s minimum wage to $20 an hour hit stiff opposition from the business community and a city committee Tuesday, but the proposal still has a path forward. 

Councilmember Alison Coombs introduced the plan Tuesday to the city council’s Management and Finance policy committee. If her plan becomes city law, the minimum wage would rise each year from the current $12-an-hour rate to: 

  • $12.60 in 2021
  • $13.23 in 2022
  • $14.55 in 2023
  • $16 in 2024
  • $17.60 in 2025
  • $19.36 in 2026
  • $20 in 2027

The Management and Finance committee voted 2-1 not to approve the plan, with members Dave Gruber and Curtis Gardner against the proposal and Councilmember Juan Marcano in support.

Coombs told the Sentinel she’ll continue to push the ordinance to an eventual study session despite the committee’s decision. There, the entire city council will be able to debate the proposal. It was not immediately clear when that might be. 

Coombs’ proposal is ambitious. Although Denver’s  bottom wage will be far above Aurora’s for a few years under the proposal, the Aurora minimum wage would eventually outstrip Denver’s, unless Denver lawmakers followed suit. 

The state minimum wage increased from $11.10 per hour to $12 on Jan. 1, via the passage of Amendment 70. That wage now increases annually with only a cost of living increase.

The proposal is born out of necessity, Coombs said Tuesday. 

“This is really about making sure that our essential workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, are being paid well during a pandemic and…in general and can afford to survive on just one job,” she said. 

She pointed to relentless rent increases as key evidence that Aurora workers are being priced-out. One Property Club survey recently found the average monthly Aurora rent spiked from $1,190 in 2010 to $2,060 in 2019.  

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, a single parent working full-time with one child in the Denver-Lakewood-Aurora census tract would have to earn $29.69 an hour to pay for costs of living including housing and medical costs. MIT’s tool estimated the “living wage” for two adults supporting two children to be $18.68 an hour. 

Coombs also said the wage increase would pump money into the local economy. 

It’s not clear how many Aurorans would benefit from the wage boost. City of Aurora spokesperson Michael Bryant said in 2019, 10% of workers in both Arapahoe and Adams counties earned $11.71 or less an hour. That year, the minimum wage was $11.10 an hour. 

But only about one-fifth of Aurora residents worked in Aurora in 2017, Bryant said, citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That year, more than 100,000 people worked in Aurora but lived somewhere else. 

Councilmember Curtis Gardner, a member of the Management and Finance committee, called Coombs’ proposal “short-sighted.” 

Gardner and members of local business organizations including the Aurora Chamber of Commerce said the plan would saddle many businesses with enormous payroll expenses and force layoffs and closures. Local establishments are already facing grim circumstances because of the pandemic-induced recession. 

Economists who spoke with the Sentinel agreed. 

Jack Strauss, an economist at the University of Denver, said minimum wage increases generally benefit local economies and workers. But he said Coombs’ proposal is “excessive.” 

“The problem is, a lot of businesses can’t afford it,” he said. “This will encourage firing.”

Andrew Friedson, an assistant professor of economics at CU-Denver, said the proposal would provide a living wage for workers but also scare away businesses. 

He said that, because Aurora borders many other towns and cities, businesses would simply relocate to cheaper areas if Coombs’ idea becomes law.