After demonstration in Salem, organizers vow 2016 ballot measure

As political momentum builds for an even larger increase, Oregon’s minimum wage went from $9.10 to $9.25 per hour with the start of the new year.

The increase is automatic, because Oregon voters in 2002 linked increases with the Consumer Price Index.

Oregon is one of 21 states, counting New York on New Year’s Eve, that increased the minimum wage in the past two days.

“This year’s minimum wage increase is a good start for 141,000 Oregon workers and their ability to make ends meet,” says state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, whose office announces the rate.

“We also anticipate $25 million in new economic activity as Oregonians have more money to spend at local businesses.” Oregon’s wage is second to Washington state, which raised its minimum by 15 cents to $9.47 an hour, also through an automatic adjustment.

Movement for more

But some legislators, backed by a coalition of labor unions and other groups, are seeking a larger increase to $15 an hour.

Sen. Chip Shields is the chief sponsor of the proposal, which so far has three other senators and seven representatives signed on. All are Democrats, and all are from Portland, except Sen. Alan Bates of Medford and Reps. Phil Barnhart of Eugene and Peter Buckley of Ashland.

The coalition, $15 Now PDX, plans a rally Jan. 24 at the Capitol in Salem.

Although the Oregon Center for Public Policy says a minimum-wage worker at 40 hours per week stands to gain $26 every month with the latest 15-cent-per-hour increase, it is not enough for households to make ends meet.

“Too many working families are poor, even with the poverty line set too low,” said Tyler Mac Innis, a policy analyst for the think tank based in Silverton. “There are plenty of families above the poverty line also struggling to make ends meet.”

The coalition vows that if lawmakers do not enact a $15 minimum wage, they are prepared to seek a ballot initiative to do so in 2016.

Seattle will raise the minimum wage to $15, the nation’s highest, by 2018 for businesses with 500 or more workers; smaller businesses will have until 2021.

But cities in Oregon cannot set their own minimum wages as a result of a 2001 state law.

Shields also is the chief sponsor of legislation to do away with Oregon’s pre-emption. It has as sponsors an additional two Democratic senators, plus all the others who have signed on to the $15 minimum.

How far those bills will get is uncertain.

Related issues loom

In response to a question about the prospects of a $15 minimum wage, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, says he is concerned that the larger Democratic majorities in the new Legislature may overreach and provoke a political backlash in the next election cycle in 2016.

He says he would prefer a vote first on a uniform statewide policy on paid sick leave, which is a requirement in Connecticut, California and Massachusetts. The California and Massachusetts laws take effect July 1.

Portland instituted paid sick leave a year ago, and Eugene’s requirement will take effect July 1. Portland’s ordinance applies to employers of six or more workers; Eugene’s has no minimum.

An Oregon House committee heard a bill for such a requirement in 2013, but did not advance it. But it is likely to resurface in the 2015 session, which opens Jan. 12.

The Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association is organizing an effort to fight it. It says employees prefer higher wages, health insurance and vacation benefits.

Gov. John Kitzhaber says he favors a uniform statewide policy on paid sick leave “that accommodates collective bargaining agreements, works for small business, and doesn’t create unintended incentives to reduce other benefits.”

While Kitzhaber says he would support an increase in Oregon’s minimum wage — he has not specified how much — he also says that an increase should await a resolution of how lower-wage workers can keep more of their earnings.

Kitzhaber has dubbed it the “benefits cliff,” in which workers lose their eligibility for child-care subsidies and other services and face higher taxes when they earn more in wages.

On Dec. 8, the House Revenue Committee heard the outlines of a proposal to create a new tax credit — the “Working Families Addition” — that would help families earning more than the minimum wage and phase out at $17.10 per hour. This would be in addition to the state’s earned-income tax credit, which lawmakers in 2013 raised from 6 to 8 percent of the federal credit.

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