By Robin Brown
— It’s not easy finding employees on the clock to comment openly about Albuquerque’s minimum wage increase, but Darlene Gutierrez has no qualms sharing her opinion. As a night manager at Garcia’s Kitchen, she says the measure will benefit her servers. Her employees work hard, she adds, and they deserve it.
Gutierrez also admits she has seen costs go up with wage hikes. In the end, she says, those costs may cancel out the boon of bigger checks.
On January 1, the minimum wage in Albuquerque for employees without healthcare or childcare benefits went up to $8.50 per hour and $7.50 per hour for those with benefits. Also under the new voter-approved ordinance, tipped employees receive an hourly wage that’s at least 45 percent of the regular wage. In 2014, this rate will go up to 60 percent with future hikes tied to the Consumer Price Index.
The city legislation seems to have paved the way for other measures. Bernalillo County Commissioner Art De La Cruz said in January he plans to introduce a wage hike to match Albuquerque’s. On March 4, Democrats on the Senate floor of the Roundhouse passed legislation to raise the statewide minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 per hour. It’s likely to be approved by the Democratic-controlled House, though the governor could veto it.
Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, says a wage increase actually hurts the economy, with restaurants hit especially hard.
Servers already average the highest among restaurant employees, says Wight, earning between $12 and $25 an hour. If they don’t make enough in tips to equal the standard minimum wage, business owners are responsible for paying the difference.
“If there’s someplace where they’re not making minimum wage, I don’t know about it, and it’s illegal,” says Wight. “We have to pay them minimum.” Wight adds that she doesn’t know of a restaurant in Albuquerque where servers earn less than $12 per hour.
Mark Szeman, owner of the Route 66 Malt Shop, bucked the wage increase. He asked his employees to sign a waiver agreeing to work for the old minimum wage, telling local reporters he couldn’t afford the new one. After his move went public, protesters began picketing, the City of Albuquerque sued the restaurant and Szeman agreed to pay the new minimum wage.
Gaila Brooks, a barista at Napoli Coffee, says she supports the wage hike, though it hasn’t been all she hoped for. Her boss adjusted staff members’ work hours, says Brooks, in order to pay them more.
“It’s a little harder to get the time you want to work,” says Brooks. “I wish we could have raised it and still gotten the time we wanted to work. It doesn’t really work that way, but it would have been nice.”
As a small business, the coffee shop probably feels the effects more, says Brooks. “All of our prices went up because we have to get paid more.” Business has been mostly unaffected because loyal customers keep coming back, she says, but people have also complained about the higher prices.
Bike commuter April Orosco says she likes the increase because it makes decent-paying jobs more commonplace. She was easily able to quit one job and find another closer to home making the same amount of money. In contrast, Dylan Drake, a technician at Autozone, says the wage hike devalues his experience and expertise. “I was right above minimum wage, and it was kind of frustrating because now [someone at] McDonald’s flipping burgers gets paid pretty much the same as I do.”
The UNM-area’s Frontier Restaurant hasn’t made changes after the wage hike because employees there were already making above minimum, says Human Resources Director Shannon Rainosek. “We chose not to make any changes because we didn’t want to raise prices to our customers.” The downside for the Frontier, says Rainosek, is that their starting wage is no longer as competitive.
Kellie Kirkpatrick, an employee at Thrift Town, used to wait tables. “When I was at Chili’s, it was always, Labor costs, labor costs, labor costs. I was only making $2 an hour.” In California, she adds, tipped employees start with the statewide standard minimum wage paid by the owner, then make tips on top of that.
As for the hike in Albuquerque, Kirkpatrick is all for it. “I feel pretty damn good about it. I like the look of my check. I’m not complaining.” Costs haven’t gone up much at Thrift Town, she says, and no employee hours were cut back.
Jeremy Shupe, a cashier at 7-Eleven, says he always supports wage increases for the lowest income earners. He also says he doesn’t buy it that businesses always have to adjust by cutting hours and raising costs. “It should work in our favor.”
“I don’t even like the living wage nametag they put on it,” adds Shupe, “because you can’t live on it. I’m making above minimum wage. I can barely even pay my bills.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the hourly wage amount Route 66 Malt Shop owner Szeman eventually agreed to pay his employees. We regret the error.