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If the merits of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour were as simple as proponents state, politicians would have done it years ago and taken credit ever since.


But last week the nonpartisan Oregon Legislative Revenue Office burst the simplicity bubble of using the minimum wage as a tool to reduce poverty. The experts’ bottom line: our system is one of give and take.

Their report delivered the harsh reality that a single parent getting a raise from $9.25 to $15 per hour would only make an extra $50 per month after you subtract the public assistance they would lose. For a 40-hour-per-week job, that would be a gain of 31 cents per hour, not the $5.75 as promised by the 15 NOW movement.

On another front, special-interest groups are pushing for a statewide paid sick leave policy that would mandate 30 hours of paid sick leave every year. For employers that don’t already provide such a benefit, it would cost about 15 cents per hour.

The Legislative Revenue report on minimum wage illustrates that just adding on hourly cost comes with a price. What would you be willing to trade for paid sick leave? Fewer hours, fewer jobs, fewer benefits? This isn’t an easy two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It is more like the table game Jenga, which requires just the right placement and balance to make it work. If one tries to push the law of gravity too far, the whole game comes tumbling down.

So now what? Do we follow the opponents of raising the minimum wage in an “I told you so!” parade? Or do we step up and look at new ideas that will make a difference and provide opportunity?

First, let’s give up on the idea that we can just wish people out of poverty. Minimum wage by itself as a means to reducing poverty is an old and tired hue-and-cry that doesn’t work. The world has changed since the inception of the minimum wage in 1938, but poverty has remained throughout this 77-year time span. We need to move to the next level.

Some of the ideas that are being thrown around include considering different entry-level wages that would reward high school graduates and college students. It would encourage individuals to finish their educations and to quantify what education means to earning power. Training wages for skilled labor jobs is another idea to open more jobs and increase the interest in the skilled trade sector.

But what I like most is the notion to publicly recognize employers that currently offer living-wage compensation packages; draw a distinction between their competitors that come to market on a low-wage, low-hour, no-benefit strategy; and bring consumer pressure to bear in the marketplace.

Think about it. If you knew Retailer A in your neighborhood paid their entry-level employees a wage, plus health-care benefits, paid time off, and a retirement contribution that together was more than $15 per hour, while Retailer B paid $9.25 per hour with no benefits and sent their employees to the welfare line to close their monthly gap for food and rent, where would you trade your dollars?

If you are in the camp that cares about low prices and nothing else, this idea isn’t for you. If you want to chant simple solutions in the public square that net a single mom $50 a month, good luck.

But if you want to change the marketplace and a create a new level of consumer pressure on all employers to meet or exceed the employers that provide a total living compensation package, then join me in a new discussion that will move us forward.

Joe Gilliam is president of the Northwest Grocery Association, Wilsonville, which represents more than 400 Oregon retail grocery stores that employ 40,000 Oregonians.

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