Living wage has been a growing issue in labor politics and economic discussions in this country, particularly as unions and other worker groups began aggressively championing raising minimum wage over the past few years. Living wages are of concern here in Colorado as rent and home prices soared over the past decade. When living costs in Denver and other Colorado cities exceed local wages it prices workers out of their homes. Rising costs partially drove the push to increase Colorado minimum wage; however, minimum wage often fails to provide a living wage for Colorado workers. Today’s post will explore what is considered a living wage in Colorado and some of the legal concerns that arise in the debate.
What is a living wage?
A living wage is the hourly rate an individual must earn to support his or her family when that person is the sole provider and works full time. Living wage is not the same thing as minimum wage. Minimum wage is a minimum amount an employer may pay to an employee covered by the minimum wage law for work. Living wage considers the costs to that family to meet their minimum needs for self-sufficiency where the family lives. These costs change across regions rather than assume equal costs across the board. Note that a living wage is not a calculation of the wage necessary to live comfortably or move up the economic ladder.
Typically economists calculate living wages in light of the size of the family supported by the sole provider. For example, a Colorado employee without a significant other or children needs to earn far less than an employee supporting a family of four. This is for obvious reasons. Feeding four people costs more than one. Therefore, living wage varies not only by location but also by the size of the family supported.
Living wage in Denver, for example, requires a single employee to earn $12.95 which is above the current minimum wage. If that employee supports another adult and two children that number rises to $28.01, almost three times minimum wage. See your local living wage calculated using this calculator from MIT.
Colorado minimum wage vs. living wage
Minimum wage laws began as a way to end sweatshops and require employers to pay a living wage. Generally over time minimum wage laws in the United States failed to keep up with living wage requirements. Federal minimum wage set by the Fair Labor Standards Act is far below the living wage calculated in most parts of the country. Twenty-nine states have state minimum wages higher than federal law, including Colorado. Amendment 70 to the Colorado Constitution set minimum wage on a stair step to 2020 when increases tie to inflation.
Employees earning the Colorado minimum wage may still not reach a living wage. Considerations for calculating living wage include home prices, rent costs, utilities, food, transportation and healthcare. Although these are basic costs they do not include many expenses that Colorado employees may face. Nor do they include other financial considerations like retirement savings or entertainment.
Considerations for Colorado living wage
A living wage is not uniform across Colorado. Basic family expenses vary considerably across the state. For example, rent and home prices in Denver are far more expensive than most rural parts of Colorado. As expenses increase, so too does the living wage required to afford those expenses. Living wage is not always a linear increase with the urban density. For example, the Colorado Springs metro area requires only a slight decrease from the Denver metro area. Generally, however, urban areas are more expensive than rural areas in Colorado.
An important issue in Colorado is that living expenses are increasing at a rapid rate compared to wages. Studies of government data reflect living expenses increased three times as fast as wages. You can easily see how this happened with the explosion of both home and rent costs compared to even the increase in Colorado minimum wage. This is not a Denver problem. Growth in other large Colorado cities like Greeley, Loveland and Pueblo face the same struggles. Urbanization is not the only factor driving higher living costs. Many mountain communities have high living wages due to expensive housing costs, particular around tourist destinations.
A living wage in Colorado
Colorado employees must consider their location and how local cost variance affects their ability to support their families. The size of the family and location are key issues in self-sufficiency. An individual employee in Colorado needs to earn between $10.75 and $13 hourly just to sustain basic living costs. Note that even the lowest cost area of the state is above the Colorado minimum wage. For a family of four the living wage ranges from $24.00 to $29.00 far above the state minimum wage.
Unfortunately two income households do not fare better on minimum wage. In Denver a two income household with no children needs two earners making $10.55 hourly which is still above minimum wage. In lower cost areas a two income household with no children earn a living wage at minimum wage but fall below if they have a child.
This demonstrates how financially precarious life can be for many Colorado families. Lost wages or a lost job can send a family already struggling to meet their basic needs into complete financial collapse.
Legal issues and a living wage in Colorado
Families earning at or below a living wage in Colorado often work jobs at or near minimum wage. They may rely upon working multiple jobs (full or part time) and earning overtime pay. An employer refusing to pay wages earned by employees can have substantial effect on the employees and their families.
Employers who pay non-exempt employees below minimum wage steal from their workers and violate federal and state minimum wage laws. Employees in this situation have rights under federal and state law to recover unpaid wages through administrative or judicial means.
The same happens when employers fail to pay overtime pay owed to non-exempt employees. Employees earn overtime pay under federal and state wage laws. This is a higher rate of pay than minimum wage or the employee’s regular rate of pay. Employees can recover unpaid overtime pay through Colorado administrative procedures or in court.
Employers also sometimes fail to pay wages at all. Some ways employers fail to pay wages owed include:
- Not issuing paychecks at all;
- Failure to pay a final paycheck;
- Shifting hours from one workweek to another to turn overtime hours into regular pay hours;
- Removing hours from timesheets;
- Requiring employees to work off the clock during lunches or before/after shifts;
- Deducting hours or pay for impermissible deductions.
If your employer failed to pay some or all of your wages then you have rights to recover unpaid wages and other relief under federal and state wage laws. These laws may allow you to recover liquidated damages doubling the amount of unpaid wages, out of pocket losses caused by the failure to pay wages, attorney’s fees and court costs.
Additionally, your employer may not retaliate against you for complaining about or reporting unpaid wages. If your employer terminates you or takes other legal action for complaining about unpaid wages or reporting unpaid wages to a government agency then you have rights to recover for lost wages and other harm.
If you believe any of these unlawful acts occurred to you then you should talk to an unpaid wage lawyer in Colorado right away. An employment lawyer can advise you on your rights and how to proceed to receive the wages you earned. Speak to an unpaid wage lawyer as soon as possible. Many wage claims have short periods that require you to act to preserve your claim. The longer you wait to talk to a lawyer the more you risk not receiving the wages you earned.