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Business quiet on minimum wage rules

Labor activists expressed support for draft rules during hearing Monday

The business community was nearly absent from a public hearing Monday on draft rules for how itinerant employees will be paid under Oregon’s new regional minimum wage law.

The law sets three different regional minimum wage rates. It pays workers the highest rate in the Portland metro area, the lowest rate in most coastal and rural areas and a mid-level rate elsewhere in the state.

The proposed rules require employers to pay the regional wage that applies in the location where the employee actually worked in a given week, unless the employee was working outside of their regular location for an “incidental period of time.” Incidental is defined as less than four hours per week.

About 20 people, a combination of workers and labor activists, turned out at the hearing at the Bureau of Labor and Industries in Portland to speak in favor of the proposal. Some speakers requested that the labor bureau define an “incidental period of time” as one hour instead of four hours.

Melchor Rodriguez, a janitor from Beaverton who is a member of the Service Employees International Union 49, said the proposed rules would help him because he often cleans buildings in different cities. He said the rules also would help prevent employers from abusing the system by locating in a region with the lowest minimum wage and dispatching their employees to the Portland area, where wages and cost of living are greater.

Kate Newhall of Family Forward Oregon, which supported the new law, said the intent of the regional minimum wage was to “recognize we want people working full time to not live in poverty” and to take “into consideration cost variations in the state.” She said the proposed rules were in line with that intent.

Representatives from business and industry have indicated the proposed rules would be too onerous for business.

Amanda Dalton who represents Northwest Grocery Association and other agriculture groups issued a statement after the hearing that employee wages should be based on where the employee regularly reports to work, not on where the employee works for a temporary period of time.

“Setting any hourly threshold, whether it is four hours or two hours or even one hour in the higher regions as some have proposed, is arbitrary and requires employers and employees to track their location throughout the day and work week, resulting in massive paperwork and record keeping,” Dalton said. “We were told this new law would be as simple as possible for employees and employers. That is not what we are seeing in the draft rules.”

The hearing was held at 2 p.m. April 25, a time when many people are working. Only one employer turned up at Monday’s hearing.

“I was actually hoping there would be more business owners here so I could hear their concerns,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who was active in developing the new minimum wage law. “My understanding is most of that is going to come from written comments. For many of them, Portland is a long trip.”

As of Monday, the labor bureau had received only two written comments, said Paloma Sparks, the agency’s legislative director.

The labor bureau will accept public comments on the proposed rules until May 23.

Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian plans to finalize the rules by June.

The first-of-its-kind law takes effect July 1, bumping up the state’s minimum wage from $9.25 to $9.75 statewide. In 2017, wage increases will diverge according to region.

Under the law, the minimum gradually climbs to $14.75 in 2022 in the Portland urban growth boundary. It will rise to $13.50 in Benton, Clatsop, Columbia, Deschutes, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, Wasco and Yamhill counties, and parts of Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties outside Portland’s urban growth boundary.

In rural areas, the wage increases to $12.50.

That’s when the proposed rules could become complicated for some employers. For example, a minimum-wage employee who works in Salem for 35 hours and in Portland for five hours per week in 2017 would earn $10.25 per hour for the time in Salem and $11.25 per hour for the time in Portland.