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Portland minimum wage panel grapples with data

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Portland minimum wage panel grapples with data

PORTLAND — As it considers a city-wide minimum wage, Mayor Michael Brennan's Minimum Wage Advisory Committee is now looking for wage earners to tell their stories on July 16.

The committee, comprised of business leaders, academics and activists, met for the third time June 18 and considered poll results from about 65 members of Portland Buy Local, and data presented by Garrett Martin, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Brennan has made it a goal to ensure people working in the city can afford to live in the city, and hopes to have some kind of ordinance proposal ready for the City Council in September.

But how much and how quickly a minimum wage should be increased above the current state wage of $7.50 per hour has not been determined.

“I think part of the problem is finding a place to go beyond $7.50 that isn't arbitrary,” Brennan said.

Brennan convened the committee in late March while considering $10.10 per hour as a possible minimum wage. The $10.10 wage has been endorsed by President Barack Obama.

While reviewing the May 8 meeting, Brennan also noted the Seattle City Council passed a $15 per hour minimum wage June 2. Phased in over a period from three to seven years, the Seattle minimum wage is an increase from the Washington state minimum wage of $9.32, and includes municipal workers.

The Seattle law increases wages far more than Brennan envisions, and its complexity is something he said should be avoided.

"It has a lot of carve-outs, a lot of exemptions, and a lot of phase-ins,” Brennan said.

Seeking something simpler may be a goal, but clarity about how many people will be affected remains elusive. Brennan said he would like a minimum wage pegged to about 60 percent of the city's median wage.

He estimated the median wage to be around $15.50 per hour, but Martin said it is more than $17 per hour. The difference in estimates means 90 cents in a minimum wage, either $9.30 or $10.20.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, the state's first minimum wage was set at $1 per hour in 1959, and last increased from $7.25 per hour to $7.50 per hour in 2009.

In the May meeting, Brennan said former state Labor Commissioner and University of Maine instructor Laura Fortman estimated an increase in the minimum wage would affect more than 125,000 people in Maine and should be close to $9.70 per hour if adjusted for cost of living increases.

Martin said his research showed about 121,000 people, or 15 percent of the state workforce, would be directly or indirectly affected by increasing the minimum wage; 84,000 of those would be directly affected, he said. Quantifying the city effect remains elusive, he added, because of those who would get a wage increase and those already making slightly above the new minimum who might seek raises as a result.

“Portland numbers are near-impossible to come by,” Martin said, adding 79 percent of those benefiting from raising the minimum are older than 20.

But Chris Hall, executive director of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it may be fewer than imagined.

“I am struggling to find anyone who is a member of the Chamber who is paying minimum wage to anyone,” Hall said.

Portland Buy Local Ambassador Thalassa Raasch and board member Tony Cox presented survey data from 14 percent of the organization's 480 members showing 61 percent of respondents have starting wages beginning at $10 per hour or more.

Portland Buy Local is comprised of a variety of businesses independently owned by people living within 50 miles of Portland for at least half the year. Business owners must not have out of state headquarters, be responsible for all business decisions, and have no more than 10 outlets.

Cox said Portland Buy Local will not take an official stance on whether the minimum wage should be raised.

Nonetheless, Buy Local survey respondents favored an hourly city minimum wage of $8.50, and 33 percent supported the $10.10 wage, Brennan suggested in March. Opinions on the potential effect of a $10.10 wage were evenly divided, with 33 percent anticipating a "negative" or "very negative" impact, and 32 percent seeing no effect.

Steve DiMillo, owner of DiMillo's On the Water on Long Wharf, said including "service employees" who also earn tips in a wage increase to $10.10 would cost the restaurant $145,000 annually, even though those employees are already the business' highest earners because of tips.

"Had I known these numbers before the meeting I may have been a little more vocal," DiMillo said in an email Sunday.

Maine law allows "service employees" earning more than $30 per month in tips to be paid at 50 percent of the minimum wage. DiMillo said this means the 50 percent of his employees who are service employees can earn $18 to $27 per hour waiting tables or tending bar, and $10 to $15 per hour busing tables or assisting bartenders.

"As I had mentioned at the meeting, the tipped staff at DiMillo’s, and most likely any restaurant in the this market, are the highest earners in the restaurant aside from management," DiMillo said. "This would mean there would be less dollars to pay the other hard-working staff (mostly kitchen staff)."

Martin found wages under $9.50 per hour in 24 cities and towns in Cumberland County, 14 more in York County, and one in Androscoggin County.

At least 50 percent of 13,000 workers in occupations including cashiers, wait staff, dishwashers, amusement and recreation attendants, and personal care and service workers, earned less than $9.50 per hour, with median wages ranging from $8.58 per hour to $9.10 per hour.

Among 35,000 office clerks, butchers, library assistants, stock clerks, crossing guards and lifeguards, at least 25 percent are earning less than $9.50 per hour. Median wages listed ranged from $17.18 per hour to $9.69.

The July 16 meeting is at 3 p.m. in Room 209 of City Hall.

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