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Finally Fifteen

Santa Fe City Council raises all municipal employees’ minimum wage to $15 an hour

Perhaps it was the news that the average home price in Santa Fe hovers near half a million dollars. Or maybe it was the fast-food chains along Cerrillos Road offering competitive pay. But on Wednesday, city leaders increased the minimum wage for municipal employees to $15.

Maybe it has something to do with elections less than a week away.

All of the above?

City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth, who is running unopposed to retain her seat in District 2 on the Nov. 2 ballot, says that’s a cynical view of the timeliness of the minimum wage raise—even if some part is true.

“It has a lot to do with the tightness of the labor market and our need to be competitive,” Romero-Wirth tells SFR. She explains that other businesses around the city have increased workers’ wages to similar rates and that’s “the direction people are moving in, you’ve got to pay people to do the work and we have the ability to raise this salary level for city employees.”

In a governing body meeting, the council unanimously voted to bump the hourly wage up by $2.68 for 217 employees who currently earn below $15. Those already making $15 an hour or above will not see a salary increase. The city, as an employer, now meets the standard set by labor activists to “Fight for $15.” While this wage floor would have significant impacts on low-income families across the United States, both city leaders and underpaid Santa Feans agree that the $15 an hour isn’t necessarily enough to stay afloat in the City Different.

Romero-Wirth says the city’s profitable summer helped swell gross-receipt tax collections and enable the minimum wage increase, which will cost Santa Fe $169,706 for the remainder of the fiscal year. The wage hike will take effect at the beginning of November.

City leaders had discussed a resolution to hike the wages on Oct. 13, but tabled the idea after they realized it would have inadvertently excluded some temporary and probationary employees. The new resolution works for all employees, regardless of status.

“I am glad we were able to slow it down to ensure that we do it right and we include everybody,” Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta tells SFR of the decision to wait until the governing body had an all-encompassing resolution.

Abeyta, who faces one challenger in his re-election bid, continues, “There’s been a movement due to COVID and this lack of workers in private industry...to up the minimum wage themselves to attract workers and if the private sector’s willing to do it, then there’s no reason why the government shouldn’t take the lead.”

Another concern raised in discussions of the minimum wage increase was the impact of workers’ higher salaries on benefits employees may be receiving from state or federal agencies, like Medicaid or child care.

“The proposed resolution allows a city employee to opt out of the pay increase if it would jeopardize non-city benefits,” Bernadette Salazar, Santa Fe’s human resources director, writes to SFR in an email.

Both Romero-Wirth and Abeyta acknowledge the need to address the city’s living wage ordinance, which requires businesses in Santa Fe to pay employees at least $12.32, but Romero-Wirth explains that the governing body does not have immediate plans to do so.

“We need to start having those conversations about how we get to a living wage of $15 an hour,” Romero-Wirth tells SFR. “Whether that’s a statewide thing to level the playing field across all of our employers, or whether we’re going to need to do this at the local level.”

Abeyta says that increasing the living wage ordinance to $15 an hour would need input from businesses and nonprofits.

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