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Thrive! Living Wage Coalition announces new home at the Local First

After a brief hiatus because of pandemic complications, La Plata County’s Thrive! Living Wage Coalition is ready to be reintroduced to the community. Now a proud program of Local First, the team is ready to continue convening local workers, employers, elected officials and public partners to understand the true cost of living in La Plata County and protect a living wage for our neighbors.

Perhaps one of Thrive!’s most recognizable initiatives is its Employer Recognition Program – a voluntary certification for local businesses that identifies and celebrates employers who are paying a living wage for all their employees. You may have noted the iconic Thrive! sticker hanging in the window of some of your favorite local businesses or posted proudly on their websites. Since it began in 2014, the recognition program has certified a coalition of over 100 businesses, and momentum continues to grow.

A living wage differs from the federal- or state-mandated minimum wage in that it is the amount a full-time worker needs to earn in order to cover basic needs for themselves and their family without private or public assistance. This number takes into consideration the true cost of living in La Plata County – factoring in housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, taxes, etc. – so we can understand what value is actually needed to accurately support the workforce we depend on.

For 2021, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Livable Wage Calculator estimates La Plata County’s livable wage to be $15.35 for a single person with no children. That estimate quickly increases to $28.52 for a partnered person with one child, or $31.03 for a single person with one child. To put these figures into perspective, the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25/hr since 2008 regardless of partnership or parenthood considerations, and the state of Colorado’s current minimum wage is set at $12.32/hr with the option to pay $9.30/hr for tipped employees.

This stark gap between mandated compensation rates and the true cost of supporting a self-reliant employee is what makes programs like Thrive! so necessary – especially as we continue to look into the complexities of the current labor shortage and the impact this economic disparity has on our workforce.

Before adopting MIT’s projections at face value, Thrive! set out to cross-reference MIT’s calculations with available local data. While MIT’s projected $15.35 is a predictably-steady increase from the $13.25 figure published by Region 9 Economic Development District in 2019, personal experiences living in La Plata County caused the Local First team to question whether MIT's figure accurately captures the true cost of living in La Plata County today.

After gathering updated child care data from Region 9 and the Southwest Office of Child Care Resource & Referral, along with 2021 rental costs from local property managers and Realtors, the projected cost of living for a single adult with no children increased to $19.82, or $37.31 for a single adult with one child. Other La Plata County organizations and leaders also provided input to suggest the food and health care projections utilized by MIT’s calculator should also be updated with local data as well – adjustments that could continue to increase the true livable wage projection.

This research process has shed light on the urgency for our local housing, child care, food, health care and transportation experts to come together with Region 9 to help us publish a truly accurate living wage figure for La Plata County in 2022. The accuracy of this figure is imperative to our understanding of the factors impacting our workforce and the implications rising costs will continue to have on gentrification of our mountain town in the near future.

In the next year we must come together to tackle each factor contributing to the rising cost of living in our county, to reduce the burden overall, and provide adequate financial security for all residents.

For more information about the Thrive! Living Wage Coalition or ways to get involved with the mission, email thrive@local-first.org.

Lauren Haggerty is the policy an programs director of Local First. Contact her at lauren@local-first.org.