Photo by Howard Fischer, For the Courier.
Originally Published: May 25, 2016 6 a.m.
PHOENIX - Backers of a proposal to hike the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 claim they’ve already got more than half the signatures they need, potentially setting the stage for an expensive fight with restaurants and the rest of the business community.
Tomas Robles said Tuesday they already have 90,000 signatures in hand. But he conceded the campaign he is heading likely is going to need far more than the bare minimum 150,642 names on petitions by the July 7 deadline to ensure the measure goes on the November ballot.
But Robles said the group has at least $200,000 to supplement its volunteers with paid circulators to more than meet the goal.
That would provide voters the first opportunity to update the law they approved in 2006 which created a $6.75-per-hour state minimum wage in the first place when the federal government said employers could pay as little as $5.15.
With required inflation adjustments, that is now $8.05 versus the $7.25 federal minimum. But even presuming 2 percent inflation between now and the end of the decade, that figure still would be below $9.
The initiative also contains something new: A requirement for paid sick leave of 40 hours each year for employees of companies with 15 or more workers. For smaller firms, the paid time off would be 24 hours.
One thing will be different this year than a decade ago. At that time the business community, confident a state like Arizona would never vote to increase wages, didn’t even bother to mount a campaign against the initiative. The result was a blowout, with Proposition 202 passing by a margin of close to 2-1.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Tuesday that business interests are not going to make that mistake again.
“I would expect you’d see a very strong response to this, and a very broad response from chambers, major trade associations like the (Arizona) Restaurant Association to fight this should it qualify,” he said.
Hamer said the change would be particularly damaging for small businesses, which would be forced to provide immediate wage hikes that could amount to $3 per hour. That presumes inflation at 2 percent a year through the end of the decade, potentially raising the current $8.05 an hour to somewhere in the $8.75 range.
He said that is coming on top of increased costs for health insurance for firms that provide such benefits to their workers.
“Some simply won’t be able to survive,” he said.
But proponents are hoping to counter that by building a coalition of small businesses that say they can live with a $12 minimum wage. At Tuesday’s press conference, one of the members, Stephanie Vasquez, owner of Fair Trade Coffee in Phoenix, detailed her support.
“I deeply believe that as an entrepreneur and as a human being that people should be treated with respect and dignity,” she said. Vasquez said the majority of her staffers already are being paid more than the $12 the initiative would mandate.
“I seek to provide a space where my team is healthy and able to provide for their most basic needs, and provide mentoring and resources so that they, too, could achieve their goals,” she said.
The campaign also has picked up support from politicians, though to this point, they’re all Democrats. “No one who works a 40-hour work week should be living in poverty,” said Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo.
The current Arizona minimum wage of $8.05 an hour - assuming it’s a family’s sole source - translates out to $16,744 a year. For a single person, the federal government considers anything below $11,880 a year to be living in poverty. That figure is $16,020 for a family of two and $20,160 for a family of three.
One political side note to the fight is that Gallardo will be at odds with another supervisor, Republican Steve Chucri, who heads the state restaurant association.
So concerned is Chucri to the initiative drive that his organization actually tried to get lawmakers to put an alternative on the ballot, one that would take the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2020. It also had something else businesses wanted that does not exist either in current law or the initiative: a preemption of local ordinances creating “living wage” requirements above what the state mandates.
That measure was approved by the Senate but died in the House when most members of the Republican majority refused to go on record as supporting any sort of minimum wage hike, even one the business community wanted.
The failure of that measure will leave voters with the only options being either to keep the current law or approve the $12 alternative. Hamer said that could create some problems for foes. “We certainly would prefer a playing field where there’s another choice on the ballot,” he said.
Robles, the former executive director of LUCHA, said the organization has put $200,000 into the campaign, much of that from a grant from The Center for Popular Democracy, an organization which is involved in efforts to establish a $15 minimum wage nationally.
Campaign finance reports also show another $25,000 from The Fairness Project, which is working to push states to establish their own minimum wages in the absence of congressional action.