Election 2015: Fight wages in Portland over $15-per-hour minimum

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PORTLAND — Nikki Brooks reflected on a financially satisfying career in the restaurant industry as she served drinks at DiMillo’s on the Waterfront last week.

“I’ve been a server and tender for 13 years,” she said. “You can directly see the fruits of your labor.”

Heather McIntosh, meanwhile, sitting Monday with her son, Liam, on the playground at Reiche Elementary School, said making a living in the city has become more difficult, with consequences that directly affect children.

“Everything is going up exponentially,” she said.

Brooks and McIntosh typify the opposing sides of Question 1, the Nov. 3 citizen initiative that would increase Portland’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Called a “living” wage by supporters, the ordinance affects all employers doing business in Portland, but not municipal employees because of rules in the City Charter.

The increases above the current state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour and the city wage of $10.10 (effective Jan. 1, 2016) would come in stages, depending on the size of the company.

“Schedule A” companies with 500 or more employees would be required to pay the living wage by July 1, 2017. Smaller companies with fewer than 500 employees would be required to pay the wage by July 1, 2019.

The ordinance calls for gradual increases leading to the living wage which, after 2019, would increase based on the inflation rate measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

If Question 1 passes, larger employers would have to pay $12 per hour beginning July 1, 2016. Smaller employers would be required to pay $10 per hour by July 1, 2016; $12 by July 1, 2017, and $13.50 by July 1, 2018.

Schedule A employers are measured by the number of employees nationwide, which will require local franchise holders to meet the $15 wage sooner.

If passed, the ordinance could not be amended for five years.

Mako Bates, who wrote the proposed ordinance, said it will also affect out-of-state companies doing business in Portland, and temporary labor agencies that hire labor for larger companies.

If passed, the ordinance would ultimately increase the “tipped wage” for employees who make at least $30 per month in tips to $11.25 per hour. The tipped wage is currently $3.75 per hour, or 50 percent of the state minimum wage, which would remain the same under the city ordinance.

The living wage ordinance would allow employers to use a “tipped credit” of 50 percent of the state minimum wage, which would subtract $3.75 from the $15 wage. Any increase in the state minimum wage would also increase the tipped wage.

Bates, a member of the city Green Independent Committee, said he adapted elements of the minimum wage ordinance enacted by the City Council last month, as well as an ordinance passed in Seattle last year.

Supporters have formed Portlanders for a Living Wage, but have not raised enough money to register as a political action group with the city clerk’s office.

“Our primary goal is to get signage up,” Bates said. “The local Green party will do the ‘get-out-the-vote’ work, which will be hugely decisive in the outcome.”

On Oct. 7, a coalition of businesses and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, with support from the Maine Innkeepers Association and Maine Restaurant Association announced it had formed Too Far, Too Fast in opposition to Question 1.

As of Oct. 1, Too Far, Too Fast had received $3,150 in contributions, but Chamber CEO Chris Hall said he expects support from large and small businesses to defeat the question.

McIntosh said the spending would be better used to show employers the benefits of a new business model where the living wage is a linchpin for attracting and keeping happy employees.

“This is investment in human capital; it is the right thing to do for everyone,” she said.

McIntosh said working in restaurants leads to a very compressed time for earning money, and vulnerability in the off-season because of reduced shifts and tips.

“So what I do is work 16 hours a day in the summer,” she said, adding she has other skills that allow her to find varied work.

The other jobs can make basic ends meet, but the cost of living is leading to food insecurity she sees daily at her son’s school, Reiche Elementary, she said.

“Haves and have-nots are not acceptable,” she said.

Brooks said she also makes most of her money during the tourist season, but is concerned the increased tipped wage would reduce how much customers leave in tips. She said she makes more than she could at an entry-level job with her degree in business and marketing.

Bates and McIntosh said closer study of the Seattle ordinance and how a living wage puts more money into the local economy shows benefits for all.

“I feel (the opposition is) worried about effects that have not been observed in the real world,” Bates said.

The effects of Question 1 worried Scott Rousseau, owner of two Play It Again Sports stores, who spoke at an Oct. 7 Too Far Too Fast rally.

As a franchise holder, Rousseau would be required to pay the $15-per-hour wage at the earlier date. He estimated the costs would add $111,000 to his bottom line and he would need revenues of $340,000 to absorb the extra costs.

“If I could go out and earn another $340,000, I’d be doing it now,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Nikki Brooks mixes a drink Oct. 7 at DiMillo’s on the Waterfront in Portland. She said she worries an increase in her minimum tipped wage would reduce the tips she receives from customers.

Heather McIntosh, with her son, Liam, on Oct. 12 said she sees the impact of low wages everyday at Reiche Elementary School in Portland. “Haves and have-nots are not acceptable,” she said.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • barkingpumpkin

    “Haves and have-nots are not acceptable”, She says while being photographed in $200 Ray Ban sunglasses.