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Editorial: City wage law needs PR, not criminalization

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Albuquerque could do more to guide workers who are not being paid at least the city-mandated minimum wage through the system to get redress.

But fostering an anti-business mentality by adding criminal penalties isn’t on the list.

A pending proposal sponsored by City Councilor Ken Sanchez would have employers who refuse to pay the city’s new minimum wage – $8.50 for hourly; $3.83 for tipped – face a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail. To date it’s a solution in search of a problem, and not a very good solution at that.

Mayor Richard Berry says the city has had three complaints. He says it has taken one restaurant to court and issued two cease-and-desist letters ordering other businesses to pay the higher wage. Which they apparently did.

In addition, the city has been contacted by private attorneys who say they are willing to represent employees who need help. Language in the ordinance puts the legal tab on the employer if the plaintiff wins, and cases should be pretty cut-and-dried because pay stubs either show compliance with the pay rate or they don’t.

The city could take some simple steps to make rights and options clear to minimum-wage workers, many who may be younger, less educated and less savvy about how to access the legal system. Posting an announcement on cabq.gov and in businesses, for instance, stating the law simply along with options if your employer is not complying would be much clearer than posting the confusing two-page, single-spaced ordinance on the website.

And while the ordinance itself has to be posted in workplaces, how many workers of any wage can decipher “the term ‘employee’ does not include (1) any person excluded from the definition of ‘employee’ under NMSA 1978 50-4-21(c))3)-(5) and (7)”?

But like many civil-rights actions, minimum-wage enforcement doesn’t belong in the criminal arena. Yet, especially in an election season, it does make for fine political theater.

The council would better serve minimum-wage workers in the city by stopping this grandstanding and publicizing employee rights and options, not threatening job creators with fines and jail. And while they’re at it, the council should at minimum revisit the automatic pay increases tied to inflation that promise to place a burden on small businesses.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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