David Seligman, executive director of the advocacy group Towards Justice

David Seligman, executive director of the advocacy group Towards Justice, speaks at a rally for new rules on pay, joined by workers, advocates, clergy and community members outside the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.

The minimum wage ain’t what it used to be, partly because every time inflation takes a bite out of people’s paychecks, it gnaws hardest on the working poor.

The minimum wage today buys 14.8% less than it did a decade, according to the nonprofit Fiscal Policy Center, and 28.6% less at its peak value in 1968, which the actual was only $1.60 an hour and the first Big Mac cost 49 cents

In a state with a booming economy, policymakers are waking up. A lot of things you used to know about this workplace safety net is about to change across Colorado, affecting workers far beyond the bottom.

Starting Jan, 1, Denver officially becomes the first in the state to take advantage of a law passed by statehouse Democrats last spring, after years of trying, to allow local communities to set their own minimum wage.

Denver’s minimum wage will increase 90 cents above the $11.10 for the rest of the state, the first bump in a three-tiered effort to $15.87 an hour in 2022.

House Bill 1210  passed with places such as Aspen and Telluride in mind, places where the rich folks need workers to take care of them, and they’re willing to pay more. Denver, however, with its vast low-wage jobs and high cost of living, along with the City Council’s progressive bent, stepped up first.

RELATED: Final Denver minimum wage proposal released

The hourly wage across Colorado last year worked out to $24 an hour, 7% above the national average.

That alone could have a tremendous reach and stimulus to the local economy, considering the 45,660 people worked in retail sales in the Denver metro area, and another 33,840 worked in food prep and services, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

They don't all make the minimum wage, but when there's a rise in wages at the bottom it lifts the surrounding boats.

But there’s way, way more.

Under Gov. Jared Polis, the state Department of Labor is taking its first look in 22 years at the annual order that sets the minimum wage to build in more worker protections.

The Minimum Wage Order currently covers four specified industries: retail services, health and medical; food and beverage; and commercial support services.

It’s been expanded so broadly they won’t even call it the Minimum Wage Order anymore going into 2020. By mid-March, when it's adopted, it'll cover almost everyone who earns an hourly wage. 

Call it by its new name: the Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards, or COMPS, get it?

You can read the proposed rule by clicking here.

The new rule will make it harder for employers to put people on salary solely to work them more than 40 hours a week for one low-low price. They'll be entitled to overtime unless they're paid well enough to justify the extra hours.

To be put on salary, employees have to perform certain work duties, but the federal government says they have to earn at least $23,600 a year, a bar set in 2004, which increases nationally to $35,568 in January.

Colorado sets the bar higher. Salaried workers here would have to make more than $42,500 a year, with a move to at least $57,500 a year in 2026.

Coloradans have until Dec. 31 to submit comments on the draft rule, which is set to be adopted on Jan. 10.

"Colorado was an early adopter of wage rights for targeted industries in the early-mid 20th century, but what was progressive decades ago is stingy today," Scott Moss, the director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Statistics told me in an email exchange. "Modern wage laws create a level playing field across the labor market, covering nearly all workers rather than picking and choosing among industries.

"And in the past year, the federal government’s decision that a salary as low as $35,568 makes you an exempt 'bona fide executive' or professional has forced a number of states to step in, by choosing a salary that’s more realistic for states’ own labor markets — especially in a higher-wage state like Colorado."

The new rules also make sure hourly employees are getting a meaningful rest break every four hours.

“When businesses allow workers to take rest and meal breaks and receive well-earned overtime pay, workers are more productive and focused on the task at hand,” said Charlie Berger, owner of Denver Beer Co., who spoke at a rally for the changes outside the state labor office in Denver on Monday afternoon. “This benefits not only the employee but the bottom line and promotes job retention.”

RELATED: INSIGHTS: A predatory economy is dining on Colorado's upward mobility

The issue cuts much deeper than what teenagers earn for their first jobs. I've written before in this space about how predatory lenders aren't that much better than our predatory economy, where the poor pay a disproportionate of their income for the basics of life, before they can even consider getting ahead with education or investments.

That's how the economic playing field gets tilted.

As the economy leaves a broad section of our populace behind, those with fewer skills and less earning power wind up working behind cash registers and lawn mowers to help cover groceries, utilities and rent.

The good news: minimum-wage earners make up about 2% of the workforce. That’s a long way from the 13.9% of the workforce that earned it alongside me in 1979, when I was a potato harvester in Alabama. 

Credit the business community for stepping up to pay more people more money, despite the occasional nudge of the government. The free market works, eventually, but not even close to perfectly.

There's plenty of fight ahead. Advocates say better pay and conditions for Colorado farm workers are next on the agenda.

"Agricultural workers, some of the most marginalized workers in the state, deserve and they must receive the protections that so many other workers have," said David Seligman, the executive director of the workers rights advocacy group Towards Justice.

He said it's not solely about a few more dollars. It's also about dignity and respect in the workplace.

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