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Lowest-Paid Coloradans Edge Closer to Living Wage

The percentage of low-wage earners in Colorado has been growing since 2010. (Pixabay)
The percentage of low-wage earners in Colorado has been growing since 2010. (Pixabay)
January 5, 2018

DENVER – Colorado's lowest-paid workers got a raise this week as the minimum wage increased by 90 cents to $10.20 an hour.

But, for workers in many parts of the state, that still isn't enough to be financially self-sufficient.

Chris Stiffler, an economist with the Colorado Fiscal Institute, says when businesses don't pay a living wage, taxpayers end up on the hook for health insurance and other public assistance programs workers turn to when they can't make ends meet.

"Even working 40 hours a week, they're still below the federal poverty level," he laments. "And what that means is essentially, these big businesses are moving the cost of benefits for their employees onto the taxpayer's dime."

Colorado's minimum wage is set to reach $12 an hour by 2020 after voters approved a ballot measure in 2016. Opponents warned the move would hurt small businesses in rural communities, and some workers could face layoffs, reduced hours, or fewer benefits.

Stiffler says it will be a few months before the economic impact can be measured when data from last year's wage increase becomes available.

A University of Denver study projected that increasing the minimum wage would boost consumer spending, add $400 million to the state's economy, and lead to more jobs, not fewer.

Stiffler points out that Colorado's unemployment rate is at a historic low, but it hasn't caused wages to rise as much as expected. He adds the percentage of low-wage earners - including home healthcare, cashiers, and service-industry workers - has been growing since 2010.

"We've raised the minimum wage because it, historically, has not been adjusted for inflation for a long time," he explains. "And we've kind of just embraced the philosophy that when all workers have enough disposable income in their pockets to then reinvest in their local stores - local coffee shops, local restaurants - it's good for everybody."

He says for a family of four, full-time workers need to earn close to $13 an hour to rise above the poverty line. A recent Colorado Fiscal Institute report also found women, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to hold low-wage jobs than other demographic groups.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO