Activists look to speed up adoption of new minimum wage in Portland

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has been outspoken in his efforts to implement a citywide minimum wage, calling for the measure in his 2014 State of the City address and then leading months’ worth of work by a specially appointed study group, before ultimately crafting an ordinance proposal intended to begin moving up the lowest allowable wages by July 1.

But after a late January meeting of the City Council’s finance committee, in which council members were hesitant to endorse the ordinance without more data on impacts on businesses and workers, even Brennan acknowledged his timetable is unlikely to be met.

Jon Hinck (BDN file photo)

Jon Hinck (BDN file photo)

Now, on Wednesday afternoon, former state lawmaker and fellow City Councilor Jon Hinck will lead a group from the left-leaning Maine People’s Alliance in a news conference aimed at pressuring the larger council to speed its process up.

At the event, alliance representatives will deliver a stack of postcard messages to city councilors urging them to adopt the mayor’s minimum wage proposal sooner rather than later.

The news conference was initially intended to take place a day before the aforementioned finance committee was to hold another public hearing on the minimum wage ordinance, although that discussion has at this point been removed from Thursday’s committee agenda.

“The minimum wage needs to be raised significantly everywhere in Maine and for everyone, including tipped workers, and indexed annually to keep up with the cost of living,” said Julia Legler, a restaurant worker from Portland, in a statement released Tuesday. “The City Council can’t do all that alone, but they should at the very least be passing this modest proposal which will help thousands of low-income Portlanders and boost the city’s economy.”

The mayor, who is not listed as a participant in the event, has proposed to place a new citywide minimum wage at $9.50 per hour by July 1, then increase it to $10.10 by Jan. 1, 2016 and $10.68 a year later. Future increases in the minimum wage would be annual and tied to increases in the consumer price index, according to Brennan’s plan.

The state minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Proposals to raise the minimum wage at any level have been political minefields of sorts, with Republicans and chamber groups largely arguing that low-margin businesses can’t afford the additional payroll costs, and forcing companies to close or lay off employees by mandating greater per-worker costs will do more harm than good.

Supporters of an increase in the minimum wage, typically on the liberal and Democrat side of the aisle, have countered that those concerns have never played out — widespread business closures or retractions haven’t been seen any time or place where minimum wages have been implemented or increased, they argue.

An off-cited study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour — a number promoted by President Barack Obama — would lift 900,000 workers out of poverty, but would crowd another 500,000 people out of jobs.

Numbers on how a minimum wage hike would effect Portland, in particular, are a little harder to come by.

A waitress serves drinks at the Westin Portland Harborview hotel's Top of the East lounge. (BDN photo by Kathleen Pierce)

A waitress serves drinks at the Westin Portland Harborview hotel’s Top of the East lounge. (BDN photo by Kathleen Pierce)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 31,000 people in the Portland-South Portland-Biddeford area (as geographically local as the federal agency gets in its figures) working in food service, food preparation and retail occupations, not including store/restaurant managers.

No occupations in what we’ll call Greater Portland pay less than the state minimum wage on average, and only one job — fast food restaurant employee — pays less than the $9.50 initial minimum wage Brennan proposes. (Fast food workers in Portland-South Portland-Biddeford earn $8.39 per hour on average.)

That said, while representatives of the Portland-based Maine Franchise Owners Association have argued against a new, higher citywide minimum wage, the Portland Green Independent Committee is among those who believe Brennan isn’t going far enough.

The committee announced last week it intends to pursue a citywide referendum on creating a $15-per-hour minimum wage in Portland, following in a trend of cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have adopted the higher number.

According to the Department of Labor, a single adult without children needs to make at least $12.53 per hour to afford to live in Portland. While none of the occupations listed above pay less than the state minimum wage, nearly all of them in the Portland area currently pay less than $12.53 per hour.

Fast food workers, as I noted above, make $8.39 per hour on average in Portland-South Portland-Biddeford, retail cashiers make about $9.70 per hour, and restaurant waiters make an average of $10.87 per hour, according to the bureau. (Retail salespeople make about $13.33 per hour, according to those figures, so as long as they’re single with no children, they can live in Portland on that income.)

Another wild card in the ongoing debate over minimum wages is what to do with tipped employees, like restaurant waiters. Currently under state law, tipped employees can legally be paid half the state minimum wage, $3.75 per hour, with the assumption that their tips make up the other half, if not more.

Portland restaurant owners, for the most part, have urged Brennan to exempt tipped employees from his proposal, telling the mayor that waiters in what’s become one of the country’s destination foodie cities typically make upward of $20-per-hour based on tips.

Brennan has indicated it is his intention to leave tipped workers out of his ordinance proposal, but that won’t play well with folks like Julia Legler.

On Monday, the Maine AFL-CIO announced its support for a bill, LD 403, that proposes to eliminate the minimum wage exception for tipped employees statewide, so that debate could be out of the mayor’s — or City Council’s — hands no matter how quickly they work.

Then-Congressman Mike Michaud greets people who attended the "Give America a Raise" bus tour that stopped in Bangor's West Market Square during an event in March 2014. (BDN photo by Brian Feulner)

Then-Congressman Mike Michaud greets people who attended the “Give America a Raise” bus tour that stopped in Bangor’s West Market Square during an event in March 2014. (BDN photo by Brian Feulner)

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.