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‘Living wage’ backers test waters in SF County

SANTA FE – It’s early, but a movement to increase the minimum wage throughout Santa Fe County may be picking up steam.

Organizers with Working America, a nonprofit affiliate of organized labor’s AFL-CIO, and local advocates of the city of Santa Fe’s “living wage” law are circulating a petition in support of raising the county’s minimum wage to the city’s level of $10.51 an hour with annual cost of living adjustments.

Proponents of a higher minimum wage are also talking about the issue with local residents, business owners and others.

Ultimately, they plan to take the petition and their case to the Santa Fe County Commission, which could then decide what action, if any, to take.

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Carol Baumgartel, a consultant with Working America and a longtime Santa Fe resident who is helping lead the effort, cautioned that organizers are, for the moment, just trying to gauge public support for the issue. But she said reaction to the petition, started about a week ago and not yet online, has been positive.

It’s past time for a higher wage in Santa Fe County, she said. The state’s childhood poverty and hunger levels are among the highest in the country, “which has to be directly related to what people earn, what their parents earn,” Baumgartel said.

Minimum-wage employees in the city of Santa Fe currently earn $10.51 an hour, the second-highest such wage in the country behind San Francisco. Minimum-wage workers in the county make $7.50 an hour, the rate mandated by state law.

However, at least two county commissioners said they’re hesitant, for now, to take a position on whether the county should raise the minimum wage. “I’ve had some preliminary discussions with people regarding the issue, and I’ve said I would like to listen and take into consideration all facets. I think for me it’s an issue I need to evaluate carefully,” Commissioner Robert Anaya said.

One factor that needs to be looked at is the varying cost of living around the county, Anaya said.

The Santa Fe City Council approved the city’s living-wage ordinance in 2003. The law was enacted in 2004 with an hourly wage of $8.50, which has grown over the years to the current $10.51 through cost-of-living increases.

However, the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce has argued for a cap on the wage rate. Earlier this year, the chamber sought to freeze the rate for three years while its effect on the local economy and employment are studied.

The chamber argues that Santa Fe’s living-wage ordinance has increased unemployment and the local cost of living, and hurt job prospects for young people.

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Advocates of a higher minimum wage, including Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, counter that Santa Fe has actually experienced recent job growth, and that the city has a lower unemployment rate than other New Mexico metropolitan areas and the state as a whole.

They also point to a series of studies by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research that found overall unemployment levels were unaffected by the living wage.

Working America’s New Mexico efforts have included pushing for a voter-approved effort to raise the minimum wage in Albuquerque to $8.50 an hour. The Bernalillo County Commission in April agreed to raise that county’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Miguel Chavez said his initial impression of the drive for a countywide increase is that increasing the wage is a “good concept” but he’s not yet sure “how it’s going to fit with the county.” He said he’ll need more information before staking out a position.

As a Santa Fe city councilor, Chavez voted in favor of the city’s living-wage ordinance in 2003.

Among other things, Chavez said there are fewer businesses in the county than the city. He also wondered how a higher mandated wage would affect county businesses’ bottom lines. And he said he’s interested in having the county take a look at whether employees who earn tips should also make the higher mandated wage, as they do in Albuquerque and Bernalillo counties, but not in Santa Fe.

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