Summit County workers, employers bitterly divided on minimum wage

A lift attendant scans a snowboarder’s ticket at Keystone Resort on Oct. 29. Summit County recently created a survey to solicit feedback from area workers, many of whom are employed in the service industry.
Liz Copan / [email protected]

FRISCO — The effort to reach consensus on a minimum wage in Summit County appears to be stuck in a philosophical quagmire, with those involved in the work group process not budging on their positions since the process started in September.

However, at the latest meeting Wednesday, Nov. 6, participants started to see the work group as an opportunity to tackle the issues driving the high cost of living in Summit, particularly housing.

Summit County Manager Scott Vargo presided over the third work group meeting and presented data from an informal two-week survey conducted by the county asking employees and employers for a variety of information, including their opinions on instituting a higher local minimum wage, which is meant to be a “wage floor” from which higher wages can be readjusted.

Vargo noted that the number of survey responses was staggering, considering the short timeframe: 973 workers responded to the survey alongside 72 employers. There also was a Spanish-language version of the survey, which received 24 responses.

“We feel really good about the study and about the number of responses,” Vargo said. “… To me, that shows the level of interest in the subject among workers, and we’re thrilled to get feedback from the local workforce, which has been lacking in the process.”

For the most part, the results were not surprising: Most employees want a higher local minimum wage and most employers don’t. Roughly 80% of workers surveyed said they wanted Summit County to have a minimum wage higher than the state, which is $11.10 per hour. A higher percentage of workers who rent (87%) wanted a higher local minimum wage than workers who own their homes (71%). For employers, 45 of the 68 respondents (66%) said they did not want a higher local minimum wage, with 23 (34%) saying they approved of a higher local minimum wage.

More than 60% of responding workers said they worked at least 40 hours a week. Among renters, more than 70% of workers said they had held more than one job at the same time in the past year. For those who own their homes, 45% said they had held more than one job at a time.

Vargo noted that more illuminating than the “yes” and “no” answers for the survey were the individual comments of hundreds of working people who had not had a voice in the process thus far and wanted to share their experiences struggling to get by while keeping Summit County’s resort economy running.

Narratives included the story of a worker who had a two-hour commute from Park County to work in Summit, a job that didn’t pay enough to save.

“Truck payment, rent and gas are my biggest issues, and it is getting to the point that I will need help,” the survey respondent wrote. “Please help! $20 an hour is what it should be in this area!”

Another respondent said it was “absolutely impossible” to live off $11 to $14 an hour in Summit, adding that they were forced to drop out of classes at Colorado Mountain College to work more because “school was getting in the way of me getting my bills paid.”

Another respondent talked about the struggles raising a family in Summit County.

“My husband and I both work three jobs and switch off to save on child care,” wrote the parent of a 2-year-old, who said their rent had increased dramatically since they moved here four years ago. “Not only do we not make enough money at our jobs, but then that money goes far too quickly when more than 70% of our annual income goes toward housing.”

High housing cost was the dominating concern cited by workers in the 644 written comments provided to the county. Other concerns included child care, health care and other costs that pile on, creating no opportunity for many individuals or families to save.

Some respondents said the minimum wage would not help the situation at all without addressing the cost of living issues, and they feared inflation on basic goods.

Those who opposed a higher local minimum wage spent much of the time at Wednesday’s work group attacking the validity of the data presented. But toward the end of the meeting, even those participants started acknowledging a solution is needed for the thousands of people who are drowning in the high cost of living.

“We made some progress late in meeting,” Vargo affirmed. “People were putting things out there that they might have been more reluctant to say before. They started pushing the idea that we have to get to some kind of satisfactory conclusion, as time is running out for the work group process.”

Dick Carlton, a Breckenridge Town Council member and restaurateur, has been one of the strongest opponents of a higher local minimum wage. But Carlton noted toward the end of the meeting that, even if the participants could not agree on minimum wage, the amount of brainpower and business acumen in the room should be used to find some kind of solution to the problems facing Summit’s workers, especially when it comes to housing. 

Carlton proposed the workgroup shift toward a more general mission of coming up with solutions to problems facing Summit’s workers in the remaining two meetings. Vargo was open to the idea but reminded participants that regardless of what proposal the work group comes up with, the county commissioners still have the authority to pass a local minimum wage.

Vargo said that could include gradually raising the local minimum wage to $15 an hour as was originally proposed, doing nothing, raising it slightly as a way to keep Summit County’s place in line ahead of other nearby counties, or combining approaches that include a higher minimum wage.

Commissioner Thomas Davidson has been the main proponent on the board for passing a local minimum wage. Davidson said that despite the recalcitrance of many of the work group members and business leaders toward establishing a local minimum wage, he was still optimistic it could be a reality in Summit by January 2021, the soonest it could be instituted.

“I haven’t given up hope on jurisdictions working together on minimum wage,” Davidson said. “It may not be as robust as I want it to be, but it could still happen if people are willing to compromise on what each person wants versus what they get. I have to stay positive, and we have time to work on it.” 

Davidson acknowledged that the strong views on minimum wage might mean that some people will never approve of its existence in Summit.

“It won’t be easy,” Davidson said. “For some, philosophically, they will never accept it, no matter how compelling the data or information is. But the stories we got are incredibly compelling. The response was remarkable, just to have that many people respond in that short of time. I would ask all my fellow elected leaders to take the time to read these survey comments and look at these stories, to know what people here are going through trying to live here.”

The next work group meeting will take place Wednesday, Nov. 20.

via:: Summit Daily