A scene from LACDC and the Los Alamos MainStreet Forum on the proposed minimum wage hike was held Monday night in Los Alamos by project staff. Photo Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
How to address the lack of employment and quality of life in Los Alamos may be more complicated than raising the minimum wage, according to comments made Monday night at a forum in Los Alamos by project staff.
Hosted by the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce and Los Alamos MainStreet, local business owners, organization leaders and community members attended the forum to voice their opinions on the proposed minimum wage increase.
A public hearing and possible action on the ordinance to increase the minimum wage is planned for the Feb. 6 Los Alamos County Council meeting.
The order proposes raising the minimum wage to $15, $3.75 for salaried workers and $13.50 for students. This will be effective from July 1. The current minimum wage is $12 an hour.
Ryn Herrmann of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce said the reaction of the business community to this proposed wage increase shows that it is a divided issue. He noted in a June survey conducted by the Chamber to find out the feelings of its members on the issue that out of 80 respondents, 54.43 percent were in favor, 37.97 percent were not in favor, and 8.86 percent were not sure.
“We get a lot of feedback for both sides,” Herrmann said. “We just thought it was important to bring everyone together … ask questions, make comments so the County Council can hear your input.”
Council President Denise Derkacs reported on some of the council’s opinions. This includes a proposal to raise the raises to the minimum wage level. For example, raise the minimum wage from $12 to $13.50 the first year, then from $13.50 to $15 the following year. Another proposal is to postpone the minimum wage increase from July to January 2025. Another recommendation is to do nothing at all.
“Some businesses have told us they are already paying workers above the minimum wage, and other businesses have said they may struggle to pay those increases,” he said.
Los Alamos Retired General Organization (LARSO) Executive Director Jacci Gruninger spoke about the challenges her organization will face if the minimum wage is increased.
He said LARSO is only trying to raise wages to $15 an hour for all workers, but his concern is that the top organization doesn’t have a product or service to raise prices to cover the costs of the minimum wage increase. It also sends the message that LARSO can only pay minimum wage, which limits the quality of their workforce.
Los Alamos YMCA Executive Director Chris Daniels said he would support a tiered implementation “so we have time to adjust.”
“It took us a few years to adjust to the state minimum wage increase,” Daniels said. “And to some extent, yes, higher wages are a component of attracting new people … also, as a service organization, we don’t have a product that we can easily point to to absorb the additional costs that we incur.”
Carolyn Cowan, owner of Mesa Top Games and Toys and LA Bootery, talked about how the minimum wage increase will affect her business.
He said he calculated that a minimum wage increase for one worker would require him to sell $1,600 more per month.
“It’s significant, and it would be difficult for small businesses to maintain the same margins that they maintain and to match that,” he said.
David Hand of Jona Manufacturing pointed out that the minimum wage is an entry-level wage, not a living wage. He said he felt the ordinance forced businesses to hire unskilled workers for $15 an hour.
“It prevents us from being able to bring a kid in and introduce them to the trade … it’s a viable alternative to college, but if they’re never exposed to it, they don’t know about it and it’s hard to get exposure. when you have to pay somebody that much,” Hand said.
Los Alamos Family Council Executive Director Jordan Redmond noted that it’s difficult to fill a high-skilled position when there are lower-skilled jobs offering the same amount of pay.
If asked correctly, the question was posed by Los Alamos resident Sam McRae.
“It’s not a living wage, it’s a minimum wage, but I think the living wage should be the minimum that people get paid,” McRae said. “We obviously don’t want businesses to suffer from this, so what can we do from the county level to help businesses absorb this cost increase . . .”
Lauren McDaniel, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Commercial Development Corporation (LACDC), said LACDC board members are wondering if the problem is not so much high wages, but the cost of living in Los Alamos, mainly housing.
The LACDC board debated raising the minimum wage, “are we really solving something … maybe we should really double down on housing and try to make it as affordable as possible,” McDaniel said.
MainStreet Executive Director Jacquelyn Connolly emphasized that housing is such a pressing issue.
“I will say that from all the conversations I’ve been exposed to, it almost always seems to come back to housing because it’s a key component of how we work,” he said.
The meeting said that even raising the minimum wage to 15 hours would not cover the rent at The Bluffs, one of Los Alamos’ affordable housing complexes.
County Planning Manager Sobia Sayeda said the Department of Community Development is reviewing and updating the affordable housing program. He added that the County is working with the Mortgage Finance Authority to increase affordable housing projects.
Redmond said he feels more than one option may need to be pursued.
“I think we need to look at all the different parts, what changes change the system and what’s most beneficial,” he said. “It could be a change in wages; This could be another type of assistance for workers who live in the district, or one type of assistance for people who work here for 30 hours or more. Are there other ways to help people… without beating them in some other way or hitting the organizations that employ them, affecting the services they receive… I don’t want us to use one arm to fix the system, because there is. lots of moving parts.”
The conversation does not end with the conclusion of the forum; The public is encouraged to email the council at [email protected] and attend a public hearing on February 6.