Fore! Portland Off Course On Minimum Wage Vote

Read it here.

Portland City HallDuring the summer, I often arrive before 6AM at Val Halla, the town links in Cumberland where I live, before I head off to work. I’m not much of a golfer (some folks won’t disclose their age; I won’t disclose my handicap except to say that it is higher than the age of my son, who was born in 1991), but if I keep the ball in play I can usually get in nine holes in about one and a quarter hours.

After spending about that same amount of time three times this past week shoveling the snow off the steps leading to my house (it’s set up on a knoll), golf season seems a long ways off. A couple of years ago I remember playing golf at Val Halla in late March; this year it looks like I will be cross country skiing there well into April!

But one thing’s for sure; I won’t have to wait until April to cry “fore.” Portland (that big bad liberal bogeyman to much of the rest of Maine), is about to drive the ball deep out of bounds when it comes to raising the minimum wage.

Last November, despite a conservative tidal wave, voters across the country in the most conservative of states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—as well as in Illinois, passed referenda increasing their minimum wage. These states followed the lead of a number of cities which already had passed minimum wage increases or enacted increases on election day, including Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland Chicago, Santa Fe, and Washington DC.

Here in Portland, however, despite Mayor Brennan’s efforts to raise the minimum to $9.50 (still far short of the poverty line for a family of four), it is now apparent that there will be no such raise in 2015. At a hearing I attended on January 22 (the third such hearing), only one of the three city councilors in attendance at a Finance Committee session expressed unconditional support for such a raise.

In addition, two of the three councilors indicated they would oppose indexing any raise, which would avoid annual debates about increasing the minimum wage further by tying future increases to increases in the cost of living. Indexing is commonly used to prevent inflation from eroding the value of wages and benefits, such as in the Social Security program.

Several city councilors also indicated that they would not support any requirement that employers pay tipped workers 50% of the minimum wage. Under Maine state law, employers are required to pay one-half of the $7.50 state minimum, or $3.75/hour, to employees who rely on tips, like waiters and waitresses. So, if Portland were to raise its minimum to even the $8.50 level, one might think that employers in the hospitality industry would have to pay their employees $4.25 an hour—a $.50 raise. But since the proposed increase would be a municipal, not a state law, such an increase would not be required. Apparently the two counselors (and Mayor Brennan) believe that the waiters and waitresses are rolling in tips. But no one could answer Councilor Jon Hinck’s question—whether employers actually make up the difference now if business is slow.

There was, however, one bright spot. The councilors seemed to agree, with one exception not to support a sub-minimum training wage for employees under age 18. That idea has been heavily pushed by the hospitality industry.

After months of dilly dallying (Mayor Brennan first proposed raising the minimum last April) in the name ostensibly of getting more information, the Finance Committee scheduled a public hearing and vote on March 12 at 5PM. Absent some unexpected developments, it appears that the most any Portland minimum wage worker can expect is a raise to $8.50 per hour some time in 2016 with no indexing and in the hospitality industry–which comprises a large percentage of Portland’s low wage workforce–probably no real raise at all (unless the worker is willing to demand additional pay when tips are less than $4.75 an hour).

So much for San Francisco on the Fore! Portland workers should be screaming “fore.” Apparently the city’s councilors can’t hear you!