Minimum Wage Debate Heats Up; Is It Time for Portland to Help Lead the Way?

Read it here.

On Tuesday, my colleague Carol Garvan explored the importance in “On the Job” of tipping in the hospitality industry. I know most schools let out this week, but class, let’s try to focus and stay on topic and continue the discussion about the important efforts underway to increase the minimum wage.

Here in Maine, our fair governor last year already predictably vetoed a bill that would have raised the statewide minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 hour, saying we “should aim higher than the minimum.” I’m not sure how increasing the minimum isn’t aiming higher, but that’s our governor. Perhaps we should take pride in the fact that wages in the Second Congressional District are the lowest in the Northeast and among the lowest in the nation according to a recent report from Oxfam America, the anti-hunger group.

Elsewhere, as my favorite bumper sticker I saw this week said, “It’s time to turn LePage.” Back in January, in his State of the City address, Portland mayor Michael Brennan announced his support for increasing the minimum wage in Maine’s largest city.   Since then, Mayor Brennan convened an all-star panel in March representing various interests from the Chamber of Commerce to the Catholic Diocese to public interest advocacy groups to discuss the issue. The panel hopes to present a proposal this September.

Consensus is a good thing.  But you know, and I know, that the Chamber is NEVER going to endorse a minimum wage hike. It already is on record (despite research to the contrary) as saying what it always says—that a minimum wage hike is not a good idea. Employers won’t hire new employees, they’ll cut jobs, blah blah blah. If it’s like recommendations from most study committees, I suspect the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee (MWAC) report will gather dust on the shelves of City Hall.

Meanwhile, despite Maine’s time-honored motto “I lead” Dirigo motto, while the MWAC fiddles and diddles, the rest of the country is passing Portland and Maine by. Last February, with one stroke of the pen President Obama increased the federal contract minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Across the country, Seattle, Washington raised its minimum to $15 per hour, the highest in the country! (Maybe there is hope for Mayor Brennan’s model; Seattle’s mayor also convened a blue ribbon panel). Voters in San Francisco will be voting on a similar $15/hour proposal. (I guess that’s why they call it the Left Coast).

Closer to home, Massachusetts legislators have agreed to push for an increase in the minimum wage to $11/hour over 3 years. Just last week, our northern New England neighbor to the west, Vermont, enacted legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.50/hour in a series of steps by 2018. In both Massachusetts and Vermont, future increases will be indexed to the cost of living.

The poverty line today for a family of four is almost $24,000. A minimum of even $10.10/hour still doesn’t meet the poverty line unless you are single. That’s why it is time for Portland—and Maine—to raise the minimum wage.