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Voters to decide if Tucson will be second Arizona city to enact $15 minimum wage
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Voters to decide if Tucson will be second Arizona city to enact $15 minimum wage

Residents in Tucson will vote in November on whether to raise the minimum wage for people working in the city to $15.

Tucson is one step closer to becoming the second city in Arizona — behind Flagstaff — to pass a $15 minimum hourly wage initiative.

The Tucson City Clerk’s office Thursday evening certified the initiative petition for the Tucson Minimum Wage Act, which proposes to raise the minimum wage from $12.15 to $15 in the city by 2025, among other worker protections. It will appear on the citywide ballot for the general election Nov. 2 and a majority of voters will have to vote yes for it to pass.

C.J. Boyd, Tucson Fight for 15’s campaign manager, said he’s optimistic and expects the proposed minimum wage hike to emerge as one of the most talked-about issues this local election season.

“For both sides of the issue, this is going to be the big thing to vote for,” he said, noting that the races for three seats on the Tucson City Council this year aren’t shaping up to be contested partisan heats.

Earlier this year, the city raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for city employees, which meant raises for more than 2,000 people. In the past decade, dozens of states, cities and municipalities across the United States have voted to increase local wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

If passed, the Tucson initiative would increase wages for the estimated 85,000 people who are earning less than $15 an hour within Tucson city limits. (It would not affect rideshare employees and university employees, who are considered state workers.)

The initiative would also create mechanisms to protect against wage theft, disincentivize employers from cutting shifts short and prohibit employers from forcing employees to receive their earnings via a pay card.

“It’s hard to convince people that raising their wages is a bad thing when they’re barely surviving. And even folks who aren’t in that situation understand the economy is rigged against poor folks,” Boyd said. “I think there’s overwhelming acceptance of that in Tucson, and this is going to be something we’re going to win by a healthy margin.”

To date, several local elected officials, including Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik and Tucson Unified School District board member Natalie Luna Rose, have endorsed the wage hike plan.

Additionally, the Fight for 15 campaign reported a total of $54,460.54 in campaign contributions from January through March, which included $50,000 from the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, and $80,671 total to date.

Gradual increase

The plan to raise Tucson’s $12.15 hour wage, which is the state’s minimum, through a three-year incremental increase is something similar to what campaigns have done across the country.

In 2016, 58% of Arizona voters passed a gradual statewide minimum wage increase, which elevated the hourly wage floor from $8.05 in 2015 to $12.15 this year, making it one of the highest hourly wage floors of any state.

But, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, that’s still not quite enough for a single person with no children living in Tucson to afford clothing, housing, transportation and other necessities.

They would need to work a full-time job earning at least $13.80 an hour; a single person with one child would need at least $28.52.

Rachel Cummings, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona who earns minimum wage as a youth services worker, is experiencing this firsthand.

About three years ago, she moved to Tucson from Kentucky, where the minimum wage is $7.25. The initial bump in wages was noticeable and appreciated. But Cummings, who is managing Type 1 diabetes, said she’s since found out it’s not quite enough to pay for medical care, housing and other expenses.

“$12.15 might be a livable wage if you don’t have any ailments, illnesses or kids,” Cummings said. “That’s a big thing for me, and I’m just a single 25-year-old with diabetes. There’s people with children, people with elderly parents to care for, and other situations much more costly than mine.”

She started working for the Fight for 15 campaign this year. The majority of people she’s spoken to so far, she said, say they’re in support, but that no matter what side they’re on, “people seem to have their minds made up.”

But if the initiative passes this fall, the jump to $15 an hour wouldn’t happen right away.

It proposes a $13 minimum wage starting April 1, 2022. In 2022, the wage would increase by 50 cents, then another 75 cents in 2024, before finally reaching $15 an hour in 2025. Starting in 2026, the wage rate would be adjusted for inflation each year.

“That’s to make sure it does not harm small businesses. Sometimes they’re working with much smaller profit margins, so this is to make sure it won’t put anyone under,” Boyd said, comparing small businesses to national conglomerates like Walmart. “We are not inventing the wheel here. States, counties and cities all over the country have been raising the minimum wage over the past few years. The folks writing this bill were intentional at looking at what worked and didn’t work in other communities.”

Even still, small businesses are divided on the minimum wage increase in Tucson. Some of the local businesses that have pledged their support say worker satisfaction influences business.

“Every business owner feels the pressure of making payroll, but workers who are paid well are going to raise the bottom line of any business,” said Dwight Metzger, owner of The Gloo Factory, a print shop in South Tucson where the starting wage is already $15 an hour. “People need to take care of themselves at home, people need health care and to be able to pay their rent in order to show up at work and do a good job.”

Yet, other business owners have vocalized their opposition to the proposal.

“We just can’t afford it,” said Ed Ackerley, owner of Ackerley Advertising and co-president of Tucson Business Owners, Inc. “Many of the businesses in Tucson are suffering as it is just trying to stay afloat the last 18 months. To try to come back from reducing staff and barely getting by, and now all of the sudden getting hit with an increase in hourly wage for some companies that could be the last straw.”

Ackerley said his organization also opposes the initiative’s proposal to create a city department of labor standards, which would investigate reports of wage violations.

“We’re not against a livable wage, we’re against is the bureaucracy that comes with it,” he said. While his group has current plans to take any legal action against the ballot initiative, Ackerley said it is “planning on educating voters on why this isn’t the right time and right place for this kind of initiative,” ahead of the November election.

On Friday, President & CEO of Tucson Metro Chamber Amber Smith sent out a news release offering a similar disapproval of the Minimum Wage Act.

“The act would put Tucson businesses at a disadvantage, forcing them to pay higher wages than competitors elsewhere in our community — including some that could be located right across the street,” Smith said. “The Tucson Metro Chamber supports building an affordable community with competitive wages. The issue of poverty cannot be solved while looking at only one side of the equation. Affordability reflects the cost of goods and services as well as housing, child care, transportation, in addition to higher wages.”

No “silver bullet”

If voters pass the initiative, Tucson would follow the lead of Flagstaff, which passed the first $15 minimum wage initiative in Arizona in 2016 with 54% of the vote.

According to several media dispatches from Flagstaff, where there was an unsuccessful effort to repeal the measure, the pay bump has produced a mix of results since then. It’s factored into some business closures, while many others have remained open; some residents felt the wage increase, some didn’t.

And that kind of trade-off is why raising the minimum wage in Tucson — or anywhere else — is no “silver bullet” solution to minimizing wage gaps, said Price Fishback, a professor of economics at the UA.

He noted that while many workers will see wage increases if the initiative passes, those with less education and less socioeconomic standing are more likely than their well-off peers to lose their minimum wage job as a result of businesses adjusting to the new wage scale.

“Will it solve all of the disparities in society? I don’t think it will be a very effective device because it will be helpful to some and harmful to others. It’s a mixed bag. It’s not an easy solution,” Fishback said, adding that greater investments in education, drug prevention programs and earned income tax credits, for example, may offer more direct solutions to poverty.

But as housing costs continue to rise in a state with some of the lowest investment in education in the country, organizers for the Tucson Fight for 15 campaign said they are trying to put more money in workers’ pockets.

“If this passes, we would be the largest city in a Red state to do this,” Billy Peard, a former Democratic candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives and co-author of the Tucson Minimum Wage Act. “I hope we’ll be a big shining example to others, not just in Arizona but nationwide, that city governments can and should exercise more influence in the lives of people.”


Todd Martin caught this Northern Cardinal feasting on some Zinfandel grapes at his Tucson home.

Kathryn Palmer covers local government for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at kpalmer@tucson.com


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