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Las Cruces minimum wage wins praise from workers

Workers harvest hemp on a farm near Columbus in September. The statewide minimum wage increase concerns farmers in southern New Mexico. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SUNLAND PARK – Residents of this hardscrabble town are looking forward to seeing bigger paychecks this year thanks to both a statewide minimum wage increase and an even higher wage hike for those who work in nearby Las Cruces.

“I go to Las Cruces every morning,” mechanic Jose Arvizu said. The father of a 5-year-old said the state should match that city’s minimum wage of $10.25 an hour, which just went into effect.

“I think we should at least be with Las Cruces, all of New Mexico,” Arvizu said.

Employees in New Mexico’s second-largest city have had incremental minimum wage hikes, starting in 2015 with $8.40 an hour and jumping to $9.20 in 2017 and $10.10 in 2019. On Jan. 1, another increase took effect, bringing the minimum wage to $10.25 an hour in Las Cruces. Only Santa Fe and Santa Fe County have a higher minimum wage, at $11.80 an hour.

Tipped employees in Las Cruces receive 40% of the new minimum wage, meaning this year their base pay per hour is $4.10, more than a dollar higher than the state’s tipped employee hourly wage. The state minimum wage for tipped workers will gradually increase from $2.13 an hour to $3 an hour.

In Las Cruces, Vince Vaccaro, owner of Lorenzo’s Italian Restaurant, said that city’s minimum wage increase this year will have a big impact on his small business.

“I estimate for us it’s going to be approximately between $13,000 and $14,000 this year on a 15-cent increase,” Vaccaro said.

He has 29 employees and eliminated two positions in the years since the Las Cruces City Council voted in 2014 to raise the minimum wage.

“We’re not against people making money,” he said. Vaccaro wants raises to be merit-based rather than mandated by the city.

Along with higher wages, Vaccaro said, he’s paying higher taxes and more for food but has not raised prices for customers who visit the restaurant for pizza and other Italian dishes.

“My margins have dropped quite a bit,” Vaccaro said.

The statewide minimum wage increase also concerns farmers in southern New Mexico, who are coping with a labor shortage.

“We’re all out here struggling now trying to look for what are we going to do about the seasonal employment. It was a rough year for all of us,” said James Johnson, a farmer in the Columbus area.

Johnson worried about New Mexico’s minimum wage increase in September after he had a hard time finding employees to harvest his Carzalia Valley sweet onions.

Last year, he paid $1.25 an hour above the state’s $7.50 hourly minimum wage.

“Our base pay on our farm is $8.75,” Johnson said. Workers receive overtime pay in the packing shed during the busiest time of year, from May to September.

“People knock down some pretty good checks,” he said.

Labor contractors paid between $9 and $10 an hour last year, Johnson said. But some workers did not want to be paid more than a certain amount doing seasonal work because they risk losing benefits such as food assistance for their families, he said.

“This is the word coming back from the fields; this is the word coming back from the labor bosses, the labor contractors, who are saying this is what’s happening,” Johnson said.

He plans to apply for agricultural worker visas to bring in guest workers from Mexico this year. To qualify, employers have to show they cannot find enough U.S. citizens or legal residents to do the job, something Johnson said is tough in a county with persistent double-digit unemployment.

Supporters of a higher minimum wage, including state Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley, say the money will help working parents struggling to make ends meet.

“It helps a lot,” said Yolanda Rivera, a Sunland Park resident who works in child care in Las Cruces and is looking forward to seeing her first paycheck this year.

“It makes me happy for all the people who made $7.50 an hour,” Ana Maria Moctezuma, 42, said as she pushed her granddaughter in a shopping cart through a discount store on her day off. Moctezuma said she receives $9 an hour as a home health care worker for elderly people in Sunland Park. She has no health insurance or paid vacation time.

“My concern is that we don’t get any benefits,” she said.

She’s hopeful her employer will give her a raise now that the minimum wage has gone up statewide and even higher in nearby Las Cruces.