Minimum Wage

The city's latest minimum wage proposal requires Denver employers to pay hourly employees $12.85 beginning New Year’s Day. Come 2021, wages will increase to $14.77 and again to $15.87 at the start of 2022.

Denver’s push to reach a nearly $16 minimum wage is nearing the finish line, but not without lingering concerns — and a few more tweaks.

Thanks to a unanimous vote during a Tuesday City Council committee meeting, the final proposal offered by Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Robin Kniech heads for a final vote on the floor of City Council later this month.

The first “catchup step” of the new minimum wage ordinance is 95 cents lower than the amount initially proposed, symbolic of a compromise with small business owners, who expressed their disapproval of the measure during a series of town halls.

The revised proposal requires Denver employers to pay hourly employees $12.85 beginning New Year’s Day. Come 2021, wages will increase to $14.77 and again to $15.87 at the start of 2022.

Having received additional stakeholder feedback following a presentation by the Finance and Governance Committee last week, Kniech and the mayor’s office presented a newly revised proposal Tuesday, mostly identical to the last, yet still with some changes — one of which concerned Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien, much to the surprise of the councilwoman.

The issue he raised revolved around the power of his office, which the legislation not only gives the authority to investigate wage violations without a complaint, but also the ability to enforce findings and collect penalties.

“I just think the auditor should have ... more discretion than what is outlined here,” O'Brien said.

The measure outlines a tier of penalties enforced by the auditor on employers who fail to pay their workers what they’re owed.

The draft’s previous language didn’t allow for much flexibility, but per O’Brien’s request, the version presented Tuesday now offers ranges in fines based on an employer’s number of offenses.

“You asked for the discretion, so we gave you a full range,” Kniech told the auditor. “I don’t know if we had a miscommunication, but … I thought we were on the same page. I don’t know what happened.”

O’Brien said his concern stems from the “continuing problem” in getting compliance with the prevailing wage reporting process. Personnel in payroll offices “don’t always have the skills and abilities we would like” and there’s a lot of turnover rate, which means the auditor’s office has to “continually re-educate” people on how to comply.

If it’s the same payroll technician failing to comply twice, then a steep fine would make sense, he said. But if it’s a new technician on the second offense, that’s when he’d like the office to be able to use discretion.

“I think we’re going to be fining people who really shouldn’t be fined,” he said. “The unintended consequence of having too many fines is that you’re going to be putting people out of business.”

Other changes in the newly revised measure include a differential wage for minors. Employers can opt-in to pay 15% below citywide wage to minors if they meet two criteria: developing a curriculum to develop the minor’s skills and competencies, and incorporating training and development “above and beyond” the job itself.

Denver Economic Development and Opportunity will be developing a new certification program, which Kniech said will be presented at the upcoming City Council meetings.

Another tweak to the legislation was extending from two to three years the period that wages owed to workers can be held by the Unclaimed Minimum Wage Special Trust Fund, which would be created in a companion ordinance.

Expenses unclaimed after three years will be transferred to the city’s general fund, a location O’Brien said was “not the right place to put them.” Any unclaimed funds should go to the state, he said, which has more resources to locate individuals who are owed money.

But Kniech said she and O’Brien already had “agreed to disagree” on the issue. She “did not feel comfortable” transferring money from the city to the state level, but remains open to piggybacking on state efforts.

Other changes to the ordinance include a requirement for the auditor to report to City Council by March 31 of each year beginning in 2021, and removing liability from people contracting their household services when the contractor fails to pay the minimum wage.  

The measure advances to City Council for a first reading on Nov. 19. A courtesy public hearing will be held Nov. 25, when the proposal will be up for a vote.

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