Mayor’s proposal for $15 is big step forward, but leaves out majority of low-wage city workers

by Shamus Cooke and Justin Norton-Kertson

By proposing that Portland public employees and contract workers be paid $15 an hour,  Mayor Charles Hales proved he is listening to the wave of voices demanding a $15 living wage.

A huge boost to the Fight for $15 in Portland and in the whole state of Oregon, the announcement comes almost a year after 15 Now PDX began a sustained grassroots movement to pressure Portland’s commissioners to start raising wages in the city to $15 an hour. For the past 6 months 15 Now PDX has engaged in a campaign to raise the Portland’s Fair Wage Policy to $15 an hour in wages plus $2.20 an hour in benefits. The Fair Wage Policy applies to the contract workers referred to in the Mayor’s proposal.

“This is a positive and important step forward in ensuring that in Portland no one who works lives in poverty. We commend Mayor Hales for moving forward on the Fair Wage Policy, and on raising the minimum wage to $15 for city workers” says Jamie Partridge, a 15 Now PDX volunteer who has been leading the Fair Wage Policy campaign. A public hearing on the Fair Wage Policy is set for City Hall on Wednesday, February 18 at 2pm.

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At the same time, thousands of city workers in Portland remain left out by the Mayor’s proposal, since there are over over 1,800 part-time and seasonal city workers who work for less than $15 an hour and will not benefit from the proposal.

The Mayor tweeted:  “Introducing a $15 Minimum Wage for all full time permanent employees”. The implication being that part-time and temporary employees will remain in poverty wages.  But how poor exactly? And how few stand to benefit?

According to the Portland Mercury, nearly 60% of city workers earn less than $11 an hour.   Virtually none of these workers will benefit from the Mayor’s proposal, since 97% of city workers who make under $15 are parks workers, and according to the Mercury, 99% of these parks workers are temporary or seasonal employees. Many of these so-called “seasonal” employees work year-round, provide vital services such as coordinating programs and approving scholarships, and are simply capped to 1200 or 1600 annual hours.

One such “seasonal” employee is Sarah Kowaleski. Kowaleski welcomed the Mayor’s proposal: “I commend the Mayor’s decisive action to lift full-time permanent, and contract workers minimum wage to $15, but none of my coworkers will benefit. Few full-time permanent employees make under $15. A more significant poverty-reduction strategy would be to also lift part time and seasonal staff wages to a $15 minimum.”

Although the Parks department has 97% of its workers making under $15 an hour, the Parks commissioner Amanda Fritz does not support raising the minimum wage for city workers to $15.  Fritz has remained adamant that her priority is creating more full-time jobs for the parks department instead.  Although a noble goal, we reject the false dichotomy of creating more full-time jobs versus paying seasonal workers $15 an hour.  The city is capable of doing both.

The problem lies in the city’s unwillingness to prioritize jobs and wages. The city has succeeded in finding funding for high cost projects such as covering Mt Tabor’s reservoirs, for example. Where the city has the will, the city finds a way. Kowaleski has offered to help Fritz ask for more money for Parks & Rec. The question is whether or not the city values paying all its employees a living wage enough to find a way to make it happen.

If the Mayor is serious about paying a living wage, he should immediately make plans to ensure that every city worker earn $15 an hour.  Kowaleski adds, “The face of the low-wage worker in Oregon is female, and in her thirties. This gives me pause.. this is me, and a number of my colleagues.”  But this issue extends beyond the boundaries of city employment.

While the city is prohibited by state law from raising the Portland minimum wage to $15 for everyone who lives and works in the city, the Mayor and city council can still be strong advocates for the growing campaign for a statewide $15 minimum wage, where there is legislation in Salem that has 16 legislative sponsors.   The almost 650,000 working Oregonians who earn below a $15 an hour living wage need the Portland City Council to be public champions of this larger statewide campaign.

Today’s proposal by the Mayor is good start we will fight for its passage, but it leaves out too many people. We have to keep fighting to ensure that everyone in Portland, that everyone in Oregon earns at least a $15 minimum wage. Because no one who works should live in poverty.

Get involved or make a donation to the Fight for $15 in Portland today!

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