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| Raising the Bar for Workers and Families
Published By:Capitol Media Services

Restaurant group preps for fight against Ariz. minimum wage boost

PHOENIX -- The head of the state's restaurant industry is gearing up to convince voters to quash an initiative that would boost the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.

Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said Wednesday the campaign against the measure will be based on showing them how much wages in Arizona have gone up since voters enacted the first minimum wage law in 2006.

Prior to that, Arizona employers had to pay only what was mandated in federal law, which was $5.15 an hour. The ballot measure pushed that to $6.75, with a requirement for annual adjustments based on inflation.

That has pushed the current state minimum to $8.05.

"The public will say, 'Enough's enough,'" Chucri said. And he said polls done for the industry in the spring show people believe that $12 is "too much."

The comments come as Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families is planning to submit its petitions for the $12 wage plus required paid leave today to the secretary of state's office.

Spokeswoman Suzanne Wilson said organizers have collected more than 250,000 signatures. That is 100,000 more than are needed to qualify for the ballot.

But Chucri said he's not convinced his organization will even have to fight the battle in November. He questioned whether petition circulators, both volunteer and paid, were careful to ensure that those who signed are qualified to vote in the state.

Arizona has become the latest battleground over what can be considered a living wage.

Several states have enacted their own laws, often through legislation. Most recently, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure that will take that state's minimum, now $10 an hour, up to $15 by 2022 for large employers; small companies will get another year to comply.

Chucri said part of the campaign against the ballot measure will be to remind voters here that Arizona already has a minimum wage that's higher than what federal law requires.

And that same law requires annual revision. Chucri pointed out that has meant a boost every year except for two when the rate of inflation was too small for even a nickel more, the bare minimum adjustment.

The difference, though, is not great: That $8.05 an hour is just 80 cents more than the federal minimum.

What Chucri also faces is that $8.05, assuming it's a family's sole source of income, translates out to $16,744 a year.

For a single person, the federal government considers anything below $11,880 a year to be living in poverty. That figure is $16,020 for a family of two and $20,160 for a family of three.

That's part of what has driven similar living wage efforts elsewhere in the country. But Chucri said the idea of a $12 minimum won't sell here.

"That is too high of a wage for a place like Arizona,'' he said.

Chucri said part of the campaign against the ballot measure will be the argument that higher wages mean fewer jobs.

"Restaurateurs are going to survive,'' he said. But what they will do, Chucri said, is simply hire fewer people.

He pointed out the push toward automation already is underway.

At Panera Bread, customers place their orders through computer screens and then can pick up what they want. And even at more traditional sit-down place like Applebee's, orders can be placed through tablets at each table.

Chucri conceded, though, that is happening even in places where the minimum wage is not going up. What approval of this measure would do, he said, is hasten the day.

"I don't think it's a matter of 'if,' '' Chucri said. "It's a matter of 'when.' ''

He would not say how much his group and other business organizations intend to spend to kill the measure.

The most recent campaign finance reports show campaign organizers have raised more than $342,000. Virtually all of that comes from Living United for Change in Arizona. But Tomas Robles, former executive director of LUCHA, said much of that is from a grant to the organization from The Center for Popular Democracy, an organization involved in efforts to establish a $15 minimum wage nationally.

Another $25,000 came from The Fairness Project which has its own efforts to push higher minimum wages on a state-by-state basis.

By Howard Fischer