The Fight Against Preemption: Colorado beat back laws to prevent local governments from improving worker pay and conditions.

AuthorCovert, Bryce

Marilyn Sorensen has been a personal care provider for elderly, disabled, and sick patients in Denver, her native city, for about a quarter century. She loves her work. "My whole life, I've always loved the elder communities and the young communities," she says. "They make my heart sing."

Sorensens elderly clients tell her stories and create deep bonds with her. "I've learned so much from them, each and every one of them," she shares. "I stayed just doing what I was doing because I got a lot of rewards in my heart that helped me to grow and thrive."

But the pay she receives has been far less rewarding. "It's hard to put food on the table, gas in the car," Sorensen says. She drives her own car to visit patients, but if she has a flat tire or gets in an accident, the agencies that employ her won't help cover the cost of repair. Once she was driving to visit a patient in heavy snow and her tire blew out, flinging her into an embankment. She had to pay almost $400 to have her car towed and the tire replaced; she had to borrow money from friends to cover the cost.

For a while, Sorensen was making $11 an hour. Then another company offered her $ 14 an hour--but never gave her enough hours to add up to full-time work, so she still wasn't making enough to get by. "It makes you very insecure," she says. "Picking [shit] with the chickens"--salvaging--"trying to figure it out." She talks about making steak for clients and going home to ramen noodles.

But Sorensen's financial situation is about to change. In 2019, Colorado became the first state in the nation to repeal a law that banned cities and counties from raising their minimum wages above that of the state. Shortly after it passed, Denver pushed through a minimum-wage increase to more than $15 an hour by 2022.

Its a huge victory--not just for poorer residents of Colorado like Sorensen but in the nationwide fight against preemption laws that tie the hands of local officials.

"For years, we've seen the rapid growth of preemption laws around the country to block minimum wages," says Laura Huizar, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. But the current flurry of activity began as a backlash to the movement for higher pay.

"As the Fight for $ 15 gained momentum, we saw a dramatic increase," she says. In some states, lawmakers acted to prevent local communities from raising wages before they even tried.

These bills are typically introduced by Republicans and passed at the behest of corporate lobbying interests and patterned on model legislation from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). "The corporate lobby has seen preemption as a very effective...

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