On a drizzly Friday, amid the smells of fresh coffee and stale cigarette smoke, a handful of workers gather on the worn wooden porch outside Labor Ready's Sierra Madre Street office, waiting for word on whether any construction jobs are available.
"It's good, hard, honest work," says 55-year-old Thomas Francis, raising his eyebrows and scratching his head. "It doesn't pay a lot, but it's better than Bunnyland."
He points toward the landscape of vacant lots, parks, railroad tracks and dank highway underpasses that separates west Colorado Springs from downtown. Bunnyland, he explains, is where you try to sleep under a bush while watching the rabbits cavort.
"You can get food in this town," he adds. "You can get clothes in this town, But the main thing is a roof over your head. It's too expensive to have a roof on what they pay us."
Francis flashes his most recent pay stub: $61.45, after taxes, for 11.75 hours of jackhammering and shoveling.
To stay out of Bunnyland, and the $30-a-night "motel trap," he lives with his girlfriend, who is as reliant on his modest checks as he is on hers. He says he's long given up trying to find work as a chef, his profession.
"Nobody wants to pay Bennies in this town," he says, using slang for $100 bills. "I've pounded the bricks looking. The restaurants are only offering part-time jobs. You know, 30 hours a week which, of course, is just short of what you need to get them to give you health insurance."
While Labor Ready doesn't always have jobs available, he occasionally scores a solid 40-hour-a-week construction stint of a few months.
Standing beside Francis, 30-year-old Scott Anderson tries to sum up the situation: "We're minimum-wage slaves, looking for something better, but not finding it."
Then he corrects himself. The usual pay at Labor Ready is actually about $1 better than the $5.15-an-hour federal minimum wage.
Working full-time at $5.15 an hour, likely without paid sick days or vacation, pays $10,700 a year. That's just $1,100 higher than the federal poverty level for a single person and $2,500 below the poverty level for a family of two.
Wary of the declining buying power of the minimum wage in an era of $3-a-gallon gas, Colorado's advocates for the poor and labor unions have taken matters into their own hands and are pushing Amendment 42.
On Nov. 7, voters will be asked to amend the state constitution to raise the minimum wage for Colorado to $6.85 an hour, with annual increases to keep pace with inflation. Waiters, waitresses and others who earn tips would see their base pay increased from $2.13 to $3.83 an hour.
At least 115,600 of Colorado's 2.15 million workers would earn more money if the measure passes, according to state labor data.
Yet for most of those workers, the raise still would not end their reliance on food stamps, housing assistance, utility assistance and other services offered by welfare agencies and charities. A single worker with no children needs at least $8.38 an hour in the Colorado Springs area, or $17,400 annually, to feed, clothe and house him- or herself. Families need significantly more.
Medication or food?
Perusing the newspaper classifieds, it's hard to find listings for jobs that pay $5.15 an hour. A receptionist position in Colorado Springs is listed at $7. Nursing home aide, $7.50. Dishwasher, $7.75. Sales clerk at a convenience store, up to $8.35.
But that doesn't mean minimum-wage jobs aren't out there. More than 34,000 workers in Colorado earn exactly $5.15 an hour, according to state labor data.
And for those who rely on the minimum wage, it's worth less than it used to be; over the years, it has failed to keep pace with inflation. The 1969 minimum wage of $1.60 an hour would be worth $8.88 an hour in today's dollars, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Many low-wage workers even those making more than $5.15 an hour currently are in trouble, says Rosemary Harris, director of adult services for the nonprofit Women's Resource Agency of Colorado Springs, which helps women become self-sufficient.
"They're falling through the safety nets, for whatever reason, and becoming homeless," she says.
Others are barely surviving, often relying on an array of welfare and charitable programs.
"It's a lot of personal negotiating," she says. ""What am I going to pay this month? What am I going to let go of this month? Can I put the utility bill off? Am I going to get medication or food? Is my 8-year-old going to watch the 5-year-old for those two hours, or am I going to pay for that additional childcare?' There's all kind of negotiating that, if [it's] not dangerous, certainly makes a tenuous life even more so."
The struggle to make ends meet unfolds daily in places like Ecumenical Social Ministries, a downtown nonprofit that provides myriad services to the poor.
Food pantry manager Roy Griebe says there isn't enough food to meet everyone's need. But the pantry remains an important safety net keeping hungry families from starving. As he walks among soup cans, cereal boxes and corn, he worries.
"People just aren't earning enough to get by," he says. "I don't know if even $8 an hour is enough."
Town and county
Enter talk of a "living wage," which is the threshold for self-sufficiency the ability to travel to work to earn money for food, clothing and housing, with no money for entertainment but also no outside assistance.
"The reason we use this standard is because it better reflects economic realities than the federal poverty level," Harris says. "This is what it takes to live: to have a roof over your head, to eat, to have some basic health care and to be able to get back and forth from work.
"It gives you a tangible number at which you can live and take care of all of your basic needs without any private or public assistance, and it is geared to the cost of living in your area."
According to the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a single worker in the Colorado Springs area would need at least $8.38 an hour to be self-sufficient. The standard for two parents with an infant and preschooler in the Colorado Springs area rises to $22.64 an hour, or more than $46,700 a year about $3,500 less than the median 2005 income for El Paso County.
Some 140 U.S. counties, cities, towns and government entities, armed with studies showing that so-called living-wage laws help reduce social ills, have stepped in to establish higher wages. Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico, for instance, all have laws requiring employers to pay living wages. Miami's living wage is $10.58 an hour and rises to $11.83 if an employer doesn't offer the worker benefits.
Jeannette Galanis, campaign manager for Coloradans for a Fair Minimum Wage, says her organization didn't try putting a living-wage measure before voters because the self-sufficiency standard varies so greatly around the state. For example, a single worker in Boulder County would need $10.75 an hour, whereas a worker in Lincoln County, on the plains east of Colorado Springs, would need $7.56 an hour.
"It wouldn't make sense for us to set that kind of wage for the entire state, because what is considered a living wage is different in each part of the state," Galanis says.
While there has been talk of creating a living wage in other Colorado cities before, the backers of such efforts in the past are throwing their support to raising the minimum wage.
No help in Washington
In California, more than a dozen cities and towns already require higher living wages. But with hundreds more that don't, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill into law to by 2008 raise the statewide minimum wage to $8 the highest in the country.
Colorado is one of six states in which organizers have taken it upon themselves to force the issue this November. (See "Poor worker's guide to greener pastures," at bottom of page.) They hope to push toward two dozen the number of states that have voted for increases in the minimum wage.
All this activity comes against a depressing backdrop in Washington.
Earlier this year in Congress where in the nine years that the minimum wage has remained stagnant, lawmakers have given themselves seven pay raises totaling $28,500 Democrats, led by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, pushed for a federal $2.10-an-hour increase. But the effort died in July, when Republicans attempted to amend the bill with a proposed permanent cut in the estate tax that would have benefited some 8,000 multimillionaires.
In August, the Census Bureau's annual statistics on the nation's economic health revealed that while the median, or exact middle, income for households rose by 1.1 percent to $46,326, Americans on average were earning $243 less a year than they were in 2001.
Meanwhile, the number of Americans without health insurance increased to 15.9 percent, the highest rate since 1998. And the gap between the rich and poor continued to widen, with the wealthiest one-fifth of households seeing their 2005 income of $159,583 rise three times faster than the poorest fifth, who earned $10,655.
The growing gap between rich and poor concerns Bill Kendall, president of the Center for Business and Economic Forecasting. His firm is contracted to study the situation for government planners in Denver who want to know, as he puts it, whether more Bentleys will be on the road 50 years from now.
He's found that the rich in this state are getting richer, just as they are across the nation. And there are plenty of reasons why everyone should care about the other end of the spectrum.
"There's an ongoing concern about the poor," he says. "If their incomes are low, they're more susceptible to all sorts of health and social problems. Their children perform more poorly in school. They become less productive members of the workforce when they grow up, and so forth. So absolute poverty is a real concern."
The fight for $6.85
As of its most recent campaign filing, Coloradans for a Fair Minimum Wage had raised some $220,000 for its campaign, with major contributions coming from Tim Gill, Pat Stryker and Jared Polis all wealthy Democrats. Unions, including electrical workers, had also made contributions.
Meanwhile, Respect Colorado's Constitution, a coalition of hotel, restaurant, tourism, retail and other business interests, had raised just $35,000. The group was caught off-guard by the late addition of Amendment 42 to the ballot. Most of the money to date has come from the "Hospitality Issue" political action committee, which shares an address with the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Committee spokeswoman Jan Rigg says the group's counter-campaign will accelerate, perhaps with TV advertisements approaching Election Day. Respect Colorado's Constitution's main problem with Amendment 42 is its constitutional requirement that businesses give raises to their employees every year.
"You can't regulate raises for the state's workforce," Rigg says.
Also, she adds, many opponents of the measure, particularly some small businesses, fear it would force them into layoffs or cutbacks in employee hours.
Kendall, while worried about the gap between rich and poor, also fears the amendment would stunt job growth in an economy that experts recently warned is headed into recession.
"I think there are better ways of dealing with poverty," Kendall says.
He'd rather see the earned income tax credit, which allows workers to keep more of what they earn, rise for the poorest families. Republicans pushed for the tax credit in decades past, he says, but today the Democrats champion the cause, which over the years has slipped in and out of vogue.
Back at Labor Ready, workers don't think a hike in the minimum wage will significantly change their lives. Anderson figures it would take something like $10 an hour to convince him he could live in an apartment, rather than his truck.
But he'll take what he can get.
"Sure," Anderson says. "It's a few cents."