Colorado-based company proves small businesses can also raise workers’ pay

Posted at 3:42 PM, Jan 03, 2019

The Colorado-based burrito chain Illegal Pete’s has been up and running for over two decades, and the company now has nearly a dozen locations.

“[Business has] been great for us,” said the chain’s founder Pete Turner.

And it got even greater, Turner says, after an epiphany of sorts a few years ago. He thought to himself, “’What can this business be?’ And really, who is the face of the business? It’s the employees.”

In 2015, Turner made a pledge—one that was practically unheard of at the time—to raise the minimum wages of his employees from $9 an hour to $15. His plan was to increase pay gradually over three years.

This month, that $15 wage goes into effect.

“Our employees are going to be able to live more comfortably [and have] fulfilled lives.,” he says. “They’ll be able to be more engaged in their job.”

Employees like Kristina Keeling, who works in an entry-level position at Illegal Pete’s, says she knows firsthand how big of a difference those extra few dollars an hour make.

“If I am surviving better in the world, then I’m going to come to work feeling a little bit better,” Keeling said. “Maybe feeling a little more positive about the world and I think I can give that and share that with the customers as well.”

The federal minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2009, and it still sits at $7.25 an hour. However, many states have raised it on their own.

Now, the nation is a hodgepodge of wages, and in some cases, large companies are now leading the way.

Amazon, Target and Disney have announced they’ll pay employees $15 an hour. However, critics argue small businesses will suffer if forced to pay $15 an hour. The result may be to lay off workers or reduce hours.

But Leo Gertner, with the National Employment Law Project, says when it’s done slowly, it works.

“All of these changes have been extremely gradual,” Gertner explains. “Cents over time, and companies have been able to absorb the costs, including small businesses.”

That’s how things are done at Illegal Pete’s. Turner’s mantra: make a slow buck, not a quick one.

“It’s just nice to know we’ve got, let’s say, 380 people in Colorado that are able to live the lives they want to, go to school, grow in this company, get married, have kids, buy a house, and still work here,” Turner says.