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County minimum wage up to $8.50 per hour

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About 90 minutes of debate and impassioned testimony didn’t seem to change any minds late Tuesday.

Bernalillo County commissioners narrowly agreed to support increasing the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour for most workers. The 3-2 vote matched their decision from last month, when they accepted introduction of the proposal.

Both votes were party-line decisions, with Democrats in favor and Republicans in opposition.

County Commissioner Art De La Cruz, who sponsored the bill, said the country has a long history of regulating working conditions to help people.

“It would be nice if we didn’t have to legislate fairness,” De La Cruz said. But “it has become necessary.”

Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Lonnie Talbert, both Republicans, tried repeatedly to amend the measure, but the efforts failed.

Johnson said mandating a wage increase will hurt the very people supporters want to help because businesses will raise prices or cut jobs.

“Which would you rather make — $7.50 an hour or zero?” Johnson asked. Businesses “can’t print money. It has to come from somewhere.”

The meeting chambers erupted into a mixture of applause and boos after commissioners voted. Both advocates and opponents turned out in sizeable numbers, with more than 200 people in the audience.

The ordinance would raise the minimum wage by a dollar to $8.50 an hour in unincorporated Bernalillo County, matching Albuquerque’s voter-approved ordinance, which applies in city limits.

In contrast to the city rule, however, De La Cruz’s plan leaves waiters and other tipped staffers at the federal minimum of $2.13 an hour. Their employers would have to make up the difference if the tips don’t get them to at least $8.50 an hour, or whatever the regular minimum is. The city’s law raised the minimum wage for tipped employees to $3.83 this year.

The county’s increases would be phased in. The wage would go to $8 on July 1 and to $8.50 on Jan. 1.

The proposal requires future increases after that, based on the inflation rate. Talbert and Johnson repeatedly tried to eliminate or soften that provision, without success.

Talbert said other workers — at the county, for example — aren’t guaranteed raises every year.

Supporters argued that automatic increases are necessary to keep inflation from eroding the buying power of the minimum wage.

The new ordinance covers the county’s unincorporated areas, or the land outside city limits. About 114,000 people live in unincorporated Bernalillo County.

Albuquerque’s new minimum wage went into effect in January. City voters approved it in November with about 66 percent in favor.

About 40 people signed up to speak to the commission. Some carried signs. Supporters wore “Wage Warriors” T-shirts.

Mary Molina, a supporter, told commissioners she’s a single mom who’s worked at the $7.50 minimum wage.

“This is not living,” she said. “This is just surviving. A dollar an hour more would be nice. I think it would really go a long way for so many of us to do more for our families.”

Rachel LaZar of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, an immigration-rights group, said the increase will give workers more money to spend in the local economy.

“We’re talking about people who work some of the hardest jobs in our city or county,” she said.

Larry Sonntag, who opposed the bill and said he owns a consulting business, said the $1 increase amounts to a 13 percent raise.

For “my business, like many other small businesses, the income has been going down over the last four years,” he said. “I encourage you to let the free market, free enterprise, improve our economy.”

Eric Szeman said he and his wife, who owns the Route 66 Malt Shop, are fighting the city in court over Albuquerque’s new wage ordinance. He told commissioners that the simple reality is that increases in the wage result in cuts in employee hours or other negative consequences.

“The economic law that we’re facing here is as immutable as the law of gravity,” Szeman said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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