Denver leaders have proposed a citywide minimum wage increase to $15 by 2021.

Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Robin Kniech announced Thursday that they plan to raise the wage to $13.80 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020, then $15.87 on Jan. 1, 2021.

After that, wages in the city would rise according to increases in the consumer price index each year.

Hancock Kniech

Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Robin Kniech (in white jacket, left of Hancock) announced the city's minimum-wage proposal at a news conference Sept. 19 at the Denver City & County Building.

“Wage stagnation is a national challenge and has meant pain and a lack of opportunity for too many people for too long,” Hancock said. “But Denver is leading the way to higher wages and a more inclusive and equitable economy. A raise for Denver's workers would mean families can better support themselves and better afford the city that they helped build.”

Around 100,000 Denver residents would be impacted by the increase, and the City Council will consider the proposal in November, according to a release.

This is the next step after Denver similarly raised hourly wages for city employees and contractors. Under a city law that took effect July 1, all city workers and contract employees are paid a minimum of $13 per hour. That minimum will rise to $14 per hour in July 2020 and $15 per hour in July 2021.

Those minimum wage requirements do not apply to people working outside of city government or its contractors. The current statewide minimum wage is $11.10 per hour for non-tipped workers; it rises to $12 an hour next year.

Kniech said that there will be opportunities to provide input before anything changes.

"The income inequality in our city has been growing, and we’ve been working to help residents keep up with the cost of living through housing initiatives and other measures," Kniech said. "But ultimately, only growing wages can really help folks keep up. I am excited to be working on a wage proposal that can help families earn more, be stable in our city, spend more time with their kids -- all of those things."

In his address to business leaders at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s July 30 State of the City luncheon, Hancock says the city needs to have “a tough conversation” about increasing wages for workers.

He pointed out that the state legislature earlier this year passed House Bill 1210, signed by Gov. Jared Polis, that gives local governments the ability to set a minimum wage for their communities.

“I ask that you join me and others in having it because we have residents in desperate need of a raise,” Hancock said in his speech.

“And we need to figure out  how to make it work so wage stagnation doesn’t continue to hold our people back from accessing our city’s and region’s success.”

Hancock did not spell out any specific proposal in his July 30 speech.

In the legislative debate over House Bill 1210, some business leaders warned that allowing different minimum wages in adjacent towns could lead to one employer having to pay more than another employer across the street for the same job.

In response to Thursday's proposal, the head of the Colorado Restaurant Association said she worries about how this would be implemented. A higher minimum wage could increase the cost of menu items, and association President and CEO Sonia Riggs said there could be other consequences.

“The restaurant industry is facing a crisis already," Riggs said. "The earnings gap between the front of the house and the back of the house is already significant. Anytime we see a minimum wage increase, that gap widens.”

Tipped workers, like servers and bartenders, have a minimum wage that’s about $3 less than all other employees because they also earn tips. Riggs said they make between $20 and $40 an hour right now.

She said most back-of-house employees, including cooks and dishwashers, already make the minimum $15 an hour that Denver is considering. So they wouldn’t get a raise under the proposal. That means servers could, theoretically, make between $23 and $43 an hour, while kitchen staff still hover around $15 an hour, further increasing the wage gap, Riggs said.

This could make things tougher for those restaurants already fighting to keep talented cooks or hard-working dishwashers who are facing an increased cost of living, she said.

In the legislative debate over House Bill 1210, some business leaders warned that allowing different minimum wages in adjacent towns could lead to one employer having to pay more than another employer across the street for the same job.

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The late John C. Ensslin of Colorado Politics contributed reporting.

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