Voters May Have Say on Arizona Minimum Wage in November

Voters this year may be asked not only to decide whether Arizona should raise the minimum wage, but also by how much.

Two groups on opposite sides of the issue are pushing November ballot measures to address the issue: the workers'-rights organization Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families; and the Arizona Restaurant Association, a trade group.

The proposal backed by Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families asks voters to increase the hourly minimum wage, which currently stands at $8.05, to $10 by 2017 and $12 by 2020. It would also ensure workers between 24 and 40 hours of annual paid sick leave, depending on the size of the business.

The other initiative, backed by the Arizona Restaurant Association and working its way through the legislature, would raise the minimum wage to $8.41 by 2017 and $9.50 by 2020. While it increases pay for hourly workers, it would not, at least initially, increase pay for tipped workers such as servers. Currently, the state guarantees tipped employees $3 less than the minimum wage. Under the Arizona Restaurant Association's proposal, they would be paid 40 percent less than the minimum wage.

The nonprofit workers'-rights group Living United for Change in Arizona, better known as LUCHA, created Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families after years of lobbying for a minimum-wage raise as part of the national Fight for $15 campaign. Thousands of fast-food workers with the movement, joined at times by low-wage workers in the education and health sectors, have picketed in more than 300 cities, successfully pushing New York and California to boost pay.

Tomas Robles, co-executive director of LUCHA, tells stories of single moms working at fast-food restaurants for a decade, still making $8 an hour, struggling to put food on the table.

"Twelve dollars an hour is what our families need,” Robles told New Times. "We're just asking for fair treatment."

He called the Arizona Restaurant Association's proposal a "façade" to torpedo outside efforts to raise the minimum wage – not just by Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families, but also by cities and counties.

"I don’t think they’d give a one-cent raise if they didn't have to," he said.

A group of citizens in Flagstaff is lobbying to put a voter initiative on the city's November ballot that would gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

A state-level vote would make such initiatives moot.

Chianne Hewer, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Restaurant Association, said her group's proposal represents a "fair balance" between giving workers more and protecting small businesses.

Keeping minimum wage uniform across the state, she said, makes it easier for businesses to "grow and expand."

"We care about our employees," she said. "If it were up to restaurant owners, we'd love to give a million days off and holiday bonuses. But $9.50 is what’s realistic."

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart