Rift Between Minimum Wage Sides Grows at Flagstaff City Council

Flagstaff City Council meeting.

From Arizona Daily Sun:

By Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa

Flagstaff City Council took no action after more than two and a half hours of divisive comments from the public on the effects of Prop. 414, the local $15-an-hour minimum wage law.

"I think we understand the level of fear that's coming from all sides of the issue," said Mayor Coral Evans.

Councilmember Jim McCarthy said he believed that the city did need an increase in the local minimum wage and putting the issue back on the ballot was a good idea.

However, he didn't think it was appropriate to put Elevate Flagstaff's initiative to gut the $15 wage on the May ballot. Voters need more than one option on the ballot.

He also didn't think that waiting until November 2018 was  inappropriate. Council and the public needed more time to work the problem and possible solutions out, he said.

Councilmember Charlie Odegaard disagreed, saying it wouldn't be fair to those who signed the Elevate ballot petition to wait two years.

"It's unfortunate that we couldn't have had this discussion six months ago," he said.

"We have a lot to ponder," said Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan. "It's going to take some time. We've just got to figure out how to do it."

Councilmember Scott Overton said he would defer comment on the topic until the Council took action on the initiative proposed by Elevate Flagstaff. The group, which is looking to peg any Flagstaff minimum wage to the state minimum, has turned in their petition and is awaiting signature checks by the county recorder. That process takes two or three weeks.

Maria Becerra was one of the many residents at Tuesday's meeting. She spoke through a Spanish translator and said she has worked cleaning and serving in restaurants and hotels in Flagstaff for 14 years while raising a family.

“I started working 10 years ago for $4.50 plus tips,” she said. “In the last five years my wages have risen 55 cents.”

“We can’t even dream of taking a vacation. I don’t even dream of a raise, which is what they’re trying to take away from us,” she said. “We’re not asking for a favor. Would you have what you do without us?”

Kim Yule, a small business owner, said she was appalled at the attempt to repeal Prop. 414. Elevate Flagstaff hired petition signature gatherers to collect enough signatures to repeal what the voters requested. It shows, she said, that if you have the money you can buy an election.

There are ways for businesses to adjust to the increase in wages, she said. Yule said she worked with one business that has successfully been able to adjust by tripling its online sales and selling out of holiday merchandise two weeks early.

A couple of Northern Arizona University students also pleaded with Council to speak with University President Rita Cheng and encourage her to increase student workers’ wages. State employees are exempt from the wage increase and students will still be making around $8.05 as local wages increase and the prices of food and rent increase.

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  • ChaptersSeveral people urged Council to amend or repeal Prop. 414 in order to protect jobs, businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide services to the disabled.Carl Jefferies said he is in favor of the state wage. He came to Flagstaff years ago and owned a fast food restaurant that employed mostly students. During the recession, he got a part-time job in order to make ends meet. Now, employees who will be hired under the new minimum wage will be making as much as he is making after nine years and that’s not fair.Armando Bernasconi, the CEO of Quality Connections, said his company cannot pursue its mission without the business community. Quality Connections provides job training and jobs for residents with disabilities. Businesses have helped lift 38 people out of poverty by hiring them from Quality Connections and purchasing products from the company.

“The Flagstaff business community is not the 1 percent,” he said.

Bernasconi said he believed if Council removed the $2 an hour extra required by the local initiative, a wage increase would be doable.

Former Councilmember Al White agreed with Bernasconi and said that he believed that Council could amend the law to remove the $2 increase. The $2 increase over the state wage was intended to be $2 over an $8.05 wage, not over a $10 wage, he said.

“I don’t believe the intent was to close any businesses. I think the intent of the voters was to help pull people out of poverty,” White said. Lengthening the timeline for the increase in the wage to $15 would also help.

Voters can propose and approve any initiative that repeals or amends the new law. Elevate Flagstaff, a group of local business owners, residents and nonprofits, has taken that route, collecting and turning in 8,845 signatures with the help of the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce last Thursday to put the issue back on the ballot. The group needed to collect 4,411 signatures. Those signatures have yet to be verified.

Elevate’s ballot initiative would align the local minimum wage with the new state wage and gradually increase the local wage to $12 an hour by 2020 for regular workers and $9 an hour for tipped workers. The local wage would then increase by 50 cents per hour, the tipped wage could be at a maximum of $3 below the non-tipped wage.

Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Director Stuart McDaniel pointed out that gathering that many signatures in three weeks showed an emerging consensus that a change in the law was needed.

"We're too small to be using this type of divisive language against one another," he said. He asked the public to consider and honor the opinion of those who signed the petition.

Read more from Arizona Daily Sun.