Push for higher minimum wage trying to get on November's ballot

State Elections Director Eric Spencer hauls boxes of petitions submitted Thursday. (HOWARD FISCHER/Capitol Media Services)

State Elections Director Eric Spencer hauls boxes of petitions submitted Thursday. (HOWARD FISCHER/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX - The fight is on over whether employers will be required to give an estimated 770,000 Arizonans a raise this coming year.

Backers of boosting the state's minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 turned in petitions Thursday which they say contain more than 270,000 signatures. That's far more than the 150,000 that now need to be verified as valid to put the measure before voters in November.

Backers, anticipating opposition, already are crafting their message to argue that the sharp boost - the minimum now in Arizona is $8.05 an hour - as well as the requirement for paid time off will not hurt businesses.

Even as the petitions were being filed, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry fired off the first salvo.

"Businesses faced with the extreme hike in costs and the additional workplace mandates called for by the initiative will be left only with bad options,' said chamber president Glenn Hamer in a prepared statement. Those options, he said, range from laying off workers and raising prices to investing in automation "that will make employees unnecessary.'

And some, he said, might go out of business.

But Tomas Robles, the deputy campaign manager, said there's no basis for the dire predictions.

"In fact, there's research that increasing the minimum wage and adding earned sick time reduces costs and other forms of turnover, like employee training,' said Robles. "Employees will stick to companies because they feel like they're being treated with respect.'

Tempe councilwoman Lauren Kuby said businesses clearly can survive paying more than the minimum. She cited the Changing Hands Bookstore.

"Their competition is intense,' she said, having to fight for customers with online giants such as Amazon. "And, somehow, they find a way to not just give workers sick days, a higher minimum wage, paid time off, they give vacation days. And, lo and behold, they don't have a problem with retaining workers.'

But Kuby said the initiative is about more than cash.

She said about 45 percent of people employed in Tempe are at jobs where there is no paid time off, even for sick leave.

This measure, if approved, would require companies to provide at least three days of paid sick time a year to employees who work at least 30 hours a week, with five days for companies with more than 15 workers. Kuby said that benefits everyone.

"After all, who really wants to have food served by a worker that's sick?' she said. "That's not good for the public. It's not good for business.'

If approved, the measure would immediately boost the state minimum wage to $10 an hour.

Robles said figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 770,000 Arizonans - about a quarter of the workforce - is currently making less than that figure and would get an immediate boost.

That doesn't count those who already may be earning that figure or slightly more, people with some experience: If employers have to start workers at $10, then they would need to pay more to retain those with training.

All that could drive up the median Arizona wage, the number at which half of those employed are making more and half are working less. The most recent BLS figures put that at $16.67 an hour.

By contrast, the median federal wage is $17.40 an hour, or about $1,500 a year more.

Separately, Robles estimates that 934,000 Arizonans are in jobs where employers provide no paid sick leave.

The state chamber is willing to support some increase in the minimum wage, but not as much as the initiative proposes. And there are conditions.

Chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor said his organization backed what was billed as a compromise plan offered to lawmakers earlier this year.

It would have asked voters to take the minimum wage up to $9.50 an hour by 2020.

By contrast, the automatic inflation adjustments to the current $8.05-an-hour figure required under the current voter-approved law might not hit $9 by that time.

But that proposal had a poison pill of sorts: It would have undercut the ability of local governments to enact their own living wage ordinances or require employers to offer certain benefits, such as paid sick leave.

"We liked that it would have prevented the potential crazy quilt of wages from city to city,' Taylor said.

The plan was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate over Democrat objections. But it stalled in the House when most Republicans there refused to go on record as supporting any sort of minimum wage increase, even one proffered by the business community as an alternative to the $12-an-hour plan.