What is considered a living wage in Colorado?

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 labor law final paycheck infographic

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.

Wrongful termination attorneys in Colorado

Are paid 15 minute breaks required by law under Colorado labor law?

Colorado employees seek out the answer to this question with high frequency for good reason. Colorado is one of the states that has a labor and employment law that requires many employees to receive a paid break at work and gives employees legal remedies when employers refuse to provide legally required paid breaks. In this post we will discuss some of the legal issues around Colorado’s paid break law and when you might need to talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado if you do not receive paid breaks required by law. Before getting into those details, let’s get to a brief answer under Colorado law about paid 15 minute breaks. Under Colorado law, nonexempt employees are entitled to paid 10 minute breaks every four hours of work but not entitled to 15 minute paid breaks. Employee break laws involve both federal and state law so let’s take a look at how each affects employee rights to unpaid and paid breaks.

Federal law on paid breaks for employees

Federal law does not require paid breaks for employees but establishes minimum standards for whether breaks are paid or unpaid when they occur. The federal employment law that applies to most employees on the subject of breaks is the Fair Labor Standards Act. FLSA sets minimum wage conditions for covered, nonexempt employees in all states. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are not generally entitled to break periods at all. If, however, an employee receives a break period of less than twenty minutes then the employee must be paid for that break time. 

An important caveat under the FLSA applies to mothers who need break time to express milk. The PPACA created a specific break rule in this situation. The PPACA amended the FLSA under 29 U.S.C. section 207(r)(1) to require reasonable break time for mothers to express milk. This rule applies if:

  • The mother gave birth within the past year;
  • Is covered by the overtime protections of the FLSA;
  • The employer employees 50 or more employees; and
  • The employer cannot claim undue hardship to provide the required break time.

Under the FLSA amendment the break period for expressing milk does not have to be paid; however, if the employer provides breaks under twenty minutes and that break time is used for expressing milk then it must be paid like any other paid break under FLSA.

Federal law provides for a wide range of unpaid break or rest periods to employees under different circumstances. These include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covered leave;
  • Leave as an accommodation for a disability;
  • Required rest for transportation workers; and
  • Pregnancy leave under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide unpaid rest periods for lunches but if an employer provides a rest period greater than twenty minutes then it is not required to pay for that time so long as the employee is truly relieved of all work on behalf of the employer.

Colorado labor and employment laws on paid breaks

Colorado law specifically requires paid and unpaid break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. Colorado has other state laws that require unpaid break periods for particular purposes like family leave or as an accommodation for a disability; but let’s focus on how Colorado law expands on the FLSA for both paid and unpaid break periods under the normal work day.

Like federal law, Colorado labor laws protect break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. If you are exempt from this law then state law does not require employers to provide typical break or lunch periods. Most employees are covered by Colorado wage law under the Colorado Wage Act, found in Title 8 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

The rules for typical breaks under Colorado law arise under Colorado Minimum Wage Order 34 and require:

  • A paid 10 minute break in the middle of each four hour work period as practical as possible to place the break in the middle of the four hour work period;
  • An unpaid 30 minute break or lunch when the work schedule exceeds five consecutive hours, if practical;
    • If not practical then the employer must allow the employee an opportunity to each a meal of choice on the clock whether provided by the employer or employee.

An employer can require the employee to stay on work premises during the paid ten minute break but not during the longer unpaid lunch period.

Colorado employment law

Putting federal and Colorado paid break laws together

Note that the Colorado Wage Act and the current Minimum Wage Order do not require paid 15 minute break periods although fifteen minutes is the standard break period for many employers. If an employer provides a fifteen minute break period then it must be paid for covered employees under the FLSA; but the employer only has to provide a ten minute period for covered employees under the Colorado Wage Act. Putting the two together for an employee covered by both federal and state minimum wage laws:

  • The employer must provide a paid 10 minute break every four hours;
  • The employer may extend the break period to 15 minutes;
  • If the employer extends the break period to 15 minutes then it must be a paid 15 minute break.

If you work under an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, the contract or agreement may provide additional requirements for rest periods.

Remedies against a Colorado employer for violating paid break requirements

Although federal and Colorado wage laws overlap and work together to establish minimum paid break rules, the remedies under each law are unique to the requirements of the respective law.

Federal law

Federal law only requires employers to pay for breaks of twenty minutes or less so when employees take these breaks they must count as compensable time in the day worked. The employee’s break time must count within the work hours and receive minimum wage and overtime pay for all compensable work time within the work week. An employer who fails to count compensable breaks within the workweek is liable for unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay (as appropriate).

Colorado law

Colorado law is more expansive in its protections because breaks are required for nonexempt employees. If the employee receives the required ten minute breaks but the employer does not include the breaks within compensable time then the employer is liable to the employee for unpaid wages and overtime pay (as appropriate) for the ten minute breaks. Here, federal and Colorado law is similar.

However, if the employee does not receive the breaks then the employee can pursue the employer for claims related to this violation of the Minimum Wage Order. Employees may not have tremendous claims if the employer only does not provide the required paid ten minute breaks but an employee could nevertheless pursue a claim for the violation. If the employer takes disciplinary action against an employee who demands due paid breaks then the employee may have a stronger claim against the employer for the effects of the disciplinary action. Employees have successfully sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when employers terminate employees in retaliation for demanding the legally required break periods.

Talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado about your employee break rights

If you believe you are not receiving required break periods or not being properly paid for your breaks then you should talk to a Denver employment lawyer right away. Wage-based claims carry a statute of limitations period that applies to each pay period so delay working on your potential claims may limit your right to recover due wages. An employment lawyer can help assess your situation and whether you have claims to pursue against your employer. Recall that some employees are exempt from the break rules under federal and Colorado law. Demanding breaks not required by law or by an employment contract could result in losing your job with recourse. An employment lawyer can help assess whether you are entitled to breaks and what next steps may be available to you.