Group seeks wage hike

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By Zsombor Peter
Gallup Independent, Oct 9 2006
GALLUP — The federal minimum wage stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997 buys less today than it did in 1950, according to the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, a nationwide effort to raise the minimum wage federally and in select states. Adjusted for inflation, the campaign figures, the minimum wage of 1950 would be worth more than $6 today. But with little movement in Washington or Santa Fe to raise the federal rate, a local group in seeking to at least raise it within Gallup city limits.

The Gallup Committee for a Minimum Wage Increase recently filed a request with the City Clerk's Office to begin circulating a petition that would put the question to a public vote. When the minimum wage adds up to just $10,712 a year, the committee argues, it's no longer enough for a family to make ends meet. And as one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country, it contends, McKinley County would benefit more than most.

What the committee proposes, exactly, is an hourly rate of $6.75 beginning 60 days after the proposal passes, a jump to $7.50 at the start of 2008, and an adjustment proportional to any change in the consumer price index beginning in 2009 and every year thereafter. Employees earning tips could earn $3 less; work-study students and academic interns would be exempt Bill Bright, one of the members of the committee, said the numbers come straight from a bill that died in the New Mexico Legislature earlier this year, a bill backed by Gov. Bill Richardson himself.

The committee likes the staggered implementation, Bright said, "because it gives businesses and non-profits a chance to plan, instead of happening too suddenly." The proposal also lets businesses with fewer than 15 employees opt out, he said, "so it won't hurt the little guy." And unlike most proposals, Bright added, the committee recognizes that just because the minimum wage stays put, the cost of living does not.

By pegging the city's minimum wage to the consumer price index, it won't lose buying power as the price of goods and services goes up. While the committee would prefer a federal, even a state, mandated increase, it's not holding its breath. The governor has announced his plans to push for a minimum wage increase again in 2007, Bright said, "but we're not counting on that in Santa Fe, so we're introducing this." He blames a strong lobbying effort from the business community for killing the last attempt. But the way Bright sees it, those businesses have nothing to fear on the contrary. It will actually help," he said, "because people will have more money to spend."

Besides that, the committee believes it would help businesses hold on to their employees longer. Eric Quandelacy, who manages Gallup's east-end McDonald's, agrees, but he can't speak for the restaurant's owners. With less turnover, he thinks they could save on uniforms and the hours spent training new employees. “It is a good thing," he said, as long as the increase comes gradually. Councilman Pat Butler, owner of Butler's Office Equipment and Supply, doesn't like the idea of a mandated increase no matter how it comes.

He's called it an "erosion" of the private sector's rights, and said that any good business will pay it's employees more than $5.15 an hour anyway. He rejected the idea of a city-mandated increase when Mayor Bob Rosebrough broached the subject during a City Council meeting last February. At the same meeting, Councilman Bill Nechero said it was up to the employee to prove he or she deserved more than minimum, and that any good employee would. Councilors Mary Ann Armijo and Frank Gonzales said they'd be open to an increase, but only with the business community's support.

The closest measure anyone has of how local businesses might feel is a survey the Gallup-McKinley County Chamber of Commerce conducted in January about the prospects of a statewide increase. Of the 49 business that responded, 26 a little more than half said they'd oppose an increase. But if there were one, most said they would not want it to rise any higher than $6 an hour. To get its proposal before Gallup voters, the committee will need signatures from 20 percent of the residents who voted in the last general election.

Right now, that means 982 names, according to City Clerk Patty Holland; however, if the committee waits until after this November's elections, that number could change. Holland hopes to have the petition certified by Tuesday so the group can start collecting signatures as soon as possible. If the committee does collect enough names, there's a chance it may not have to put the question to the voters at all.

According to City Manager Eric Honeyfield, the City Council could save the committee the trouble. Because the council hasn't yet voted on a minimum wage ordinance yet, he said, or even if it voted one down, it could approve the committee's proposal itself. But considering how controversial the subject is, he doubts it will. At that point, the council will have to set a date for a referendum. If the committee hands in enough valid signatures by late December, Holland said, the council could add its proposal to the city's March 6 municipal elections. Any later, she said, and the council would likely have to call a special day.