ShutterStock Downtown Flagstaff
ShutterStock

A person needs an annual income of $40,960 to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the Flagstaff-area. Even with the new increase, minimum wage workers there will only make $31,200. 

The start of the new year brought more than just motivation to tackle resolutions. For some, it brought in a higher paycheck. 

While the federal minimum wage remained at $7.25 per hour, Arizona’s state minimum wage went from $12 per hour to $12.15 on the first of the year. 

Some cities are seeing even higher increases. Flagstaff’s minimum wage increased to $15 per hour, and, effective next month, city employees in Tucson will see their minimum wage increase to  $15 as well. 

Sarah-Grace Crocco, who saw a raise of about $2 at her job at Diablo Burger in Flagstaff, said she’s been able to feel a little safer about the virus thanks to the extra money. 

“Especially with the coronavirus as a contender when it comes to lifestyle choices, I wanted to live with fewer people, for example, and the housing market in Flagstaff is so atrocious for minimum wage and working-class people,” Crocco told The Copper Courier. “And so being able to factor in a raise … helped me make a housing decision this year in terms of how many roommates I had.” 

For Safeway worker Jade Lloyd, the pay raise was welcome but not enough to make a difference in his daily life in Flagstaff. Lloyd made $14.40 before the new year and the new minimum bumped up his pay by 60 cents per hour. 

“It is a tiny help, but honestly not much,” he told The Copper Courier. 

In the earlier months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had given employees a $2 per hour raise to reward them for their efforts as essential workers, which Lloyd found more helpful. 

Effects Across the Board

Lloyd said the minimum wage raise has been a little frustrating because, although he has worked at Safeway for more than three years, he now makes the same as new employees. 

“I think everyone needs a raise,” he said, “not just the minimum workers.” 

Eva Putzova, a former Flagstaff City Councilmember who helped get the city’s minimum wage to where it is now, agreed that this is only one step toward progress. 

“It’s not that the $15 minimum wage workers are paid too much,” Putzova said. “It’s probably that other workers are not getting paid enough.” 

She pointed to research that shows other workers do tend to benefit from minimum wage increases—it just takes time. The Economic Policy Institute found that while raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would directly affect 28.1 million workers, it would also boost 11.6 million workers’ wages as part of a “spillover effect.” 

“Over time, employers do reflect in their wage schedules the fact that their bottom line employees got the raises,” Putzova said, “because in the long run, the employers are competing for talent.” 

More Raises in Tucson

The city of Tucson, on the other hand, isn’t waiting to put those changes into effect. 

Spokesperson Nathaniel Sigal explained that some employees already making above $15 per hour will see raises to “deal with compression issues.” He told The Copper Courier about 170 city workers currently make under $15 per hour, and about 2,000 make above that but will see adjustments. 

Jon Schlect, a garbage truck driver and union representative for city employees, said some employees saw wages jump from $13.25 to $15. He received a 3% raise of about 70 cents an hour. 

Schlect said he and union organizers have been working for four years to improve wages across the board. During that period, he has seen his pay go up by about 36%. 

“It means we’re finally starting to catch up to our peers working in other areas, other cities, doing the same jobs,” he said. 

This change also meant he can now put away savings and start paying for his daughter’s college education. 

“It’s just been a pleasure finally to get a mayor and council in office that the workers have meaning now. In other words, they’re important,” Schlect said. “And it’s good to see them working with the union to better off our work lives.” 

How Flagstaff Got Here

Schlect said while the efforts to raise wages in Tucson have been ongoing, he didn’t necessarily expect Mayor Regina Romero to raise the minimum to $15 this year. 

But Flagstaff’s raise was part of a plan first put in place four years ago. 

Putzova worked with a group of community organizers to first sue the state in 2015 and reverse a 2013 law banning municipalities from setting their own minimum wage increases apart from the state. 

Once that legal hurdle was out of the way, voters approved an initiative in 2016 incrementally raising the minimum wage from $10.50 in 2017 to $15 per hour this year. 

In 2017, Putzova and her fellow councilmembers amended the initiative to make the increase more gradual, while still arriving at the same end. They also added another bump up to $15.50 in 2022. After 2022, the city is obligated to continue raising the wage to the cost of living, and the city’s wage must always be at least $2 above the state’s. 

The difference between tipped workers’ minimum wage and regular workers’—tipped workers currently make $3 less per hour—will begin incrementally decreasing next year. By 2026, tipped and regular workers will make the same minimum wage. 

Tough to Keep up With Cost of Living

Putzova said securing these increases has been important to her because they increase people’s quality of life, and people who don’t have to work multiple jobs can spend more time with family and on their health. 

“The cost of living in Flagstaff is significantly higher than elsewhere in Arizona. The cost of housing is higher, even the cost of healthcare,” she said.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), a person needs a salary of $40,960 to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the Flagstaff area. Even with the increase, an annual income on minimum wage only works out to $31,200. 

The new minimum wage for city of Tucson employees does make a one-bedroom apartment accessible in their area—according to the NLIHC, a person can afford one there on an annual income of $28,840. A two-bedroom apartment is out of reach, though, at a necessary income of $37,960. 

“Even $15 is not really a living wage yet,” Putzova said, “but it allows people to pay their bills and have a slightly easier existence than they would have under the state minimum wage.”

Crocco agreed, saying that although it’s tough to keep up with Flagstaff’s high costs, the increasing minimum wage makes it more doable than in other places. 

“Coming from a place like Texas where the minimum wage is $7.25, it’s drastically different in terms of being able to make better decisions around what food I can afford, what healthcare I can afford,” she said. “Basic necessities are more accessible than they have been in other states I’ve lived.”