A Flagstaff group is going to court as a first step that could allow all Arizona cities to adopt their own “living wage” laws.
The lawsuit asks a Maricopa County Superior Court judge in essence to void a 2013 law which declares that only the state can regulate employee benefits, including compensation. That statute spells out that things like wages are “not subject to further regulation by a city, town or other political subdivision of this state.”
But attorney Mikkel Jordahl contends the law was enacted illegally.
He points out that voters in 2006 approved creation of a state minimum wage. That law, which contains requirements for automatic increases, now requires Arizona employers to pay workers at least $8.05 an hour, compared with the federal minimum of just $7.25.
And that voter-approved law specifically allows counties, cities and town to set their own minimum wages as long as they are at least equal to the state requirement.
What makes that important, Jordahl said, is a 1998 constitutional amendment known as the Voter Protection Act.
It specifically prohibits lawmakers from altering or repealing anything approved by voters without a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. And even in that case, the provision allows alterations only when done to further the original purpose of what voters enacted.
The 2013 law, Jordahl said, does neither. So, he wants a judge to void that later-enacted statute, paving the way for locally enacted minimum wages that are even higher.
Flagstaff could be first in line if the court agrees with Jordahl.
Eva Putzova who chairs the Flagstaff Living Wage Coalition, said the details of the plan are still being worked out.
One question is how high the new minimum should be.
She said there are about 10,000 people working in Flagstaff who earn less than $12 an hour. Putzova said she believes her community has a higher-than-average percentage of people in these lower-wage jobs because of the area’s reliance on tourism – including housekeeping staff.
Putzova said the other reason the state’s $8.05 minimum wage is insufficient for Flagstaff is the high cost of living in the community. She said that, when area wages are compared to what it costs to live there, Flagstaff actually is more expensive by comparison than New York City.
The idea of a living wage is not new, with similar laws in places like San Francisco, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Los Angeles and New York City.
It was precisely those efforts that caused Sherry Gillespie, lobbyist for the Arizona Restaurant Association, to push for the 2013 law.
“There has been a threat in the industry,” she said at the time. “This bill best addresses that threat.”
Putzova, however, said she does not see paying more to low-wage workers as a threat to anyone.
“You will put more money into people’s pockets,” she said.
“They will be able to go and enjoy some of the amenities Flagstaff has,” Putzova continued. “They will be able to eat out.”
And she said that, generally speaking, when people at the lower end of the economic spectrum get more money they tend to spend it.
“So it goes back to the community,” Putzova said.
What the new minimum should be is only one half of the question. She said no decision has been made whether to ask the city council, on which she serves, to enact the increase or instead take it directly to voters.
One procedural problem could get in the way of Jordahl getting the ruling he wants – or any ruling at all.
In general, courts do not like to issue ruling on questions without an actual case. That could result in the lawsuit being thrown out until some city has actually enacted its own living wage, or at least proposed to put the issue on the ballot.
But Jordahl said he intends to argue that the conflict between the two laws gives a court the right to weigh in.
He also said the coalition has already done a great deal of work gearing up for the effort.
“They do not have to spend thousands of dollars obtaining signatures on a local initiative before the courts can act on the question before them,” Jordahl said. “The time for a decision is now.”