Labor unions and their allies filed more than 209,000 signatures Monday to force a public vote over whether Arizona should have a minimum wage higher than required by federal law.
The measure would require all Arizona employers to pay their workers at least $6.75 an hour, an increase of about 31 percent from the current minimum wage of $5.15 mandated by the federal government.
It would be the first minimum wage increase for Arizona workers since 1997. Potentially more significant, it would mean annual adjustments to keep pace with inflation.
The petitions still need to be reviewed by the Secretary of State’s Office. But there appears to be enough of a cushion to ensure that the petition includes at least 122,612 valid signatures, the number necessary to put the measure on the ballot. Some signatures typically don’t count because they didn’t come from registered voters.
Rebekah Friend, president of the state AFL-CIO, said backers may spend up to $3 million to convince voters to approve the change.
The Arizona Restaurant Association is spearheading the opposition. Many of its members employ people whose wages would be raised.
Steve Chucri, president of the association, said a separate coalition of retailers and small-business owners probably will match that spending.
Business interests apparently have started from a disadvantage: A statewide survey in March showed that 62 percent of respondents strongly support the $1.60-an-hour hike, with another 19 percent somewhat in favor.
The decision by unions to go to the ballot follows years of efforts to have the measure approved by the Legislature. But Rep. Steve Gallardo, DPhoenix, who has sponsored many of those measures, said he has been unable to get the Republican-controlled House to give the plan a hearing.
“We’re going to let the voters of Arizona decide how to move Arizona forward,’’ he said. “And that would be to increase the minimum wage in the state.’’
Chucri said 90 percent of the people hired by his association’s members at the minimum wage advance to higher salaries. “We look at this more as a training wage,’’ he said.
Friend, however, cited statistics from the Economic Policy Institute that said single mothers make up 25 percent of the people in Arizona who earn the minimum wage. Many of them work full time.
“Anyone that’s working full time, a family of four, working 40 hours a week, makes $10,700, which is below the poverty level,’’ she said. The federal government sets the poverty line at $20,000 for a family of four.
The labor groups, using those same Economic Policy Institute numbers, claim the minimum wage hike would mean higher salaries for about 145,000 people, out of more than 2.6 million people in the Arizona work force.
Chucri said he didn’t know how many of the 200,000 employees in the restaurant industry earn minimum wage, saying only that it’s a “small but meaningful’’ number.
Boosting the minimum wage also could push other wages higher, as companies are forced to raise the wages of more experienced workers.