Portland minimum-wage hike gets mayor's endorsement

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PORTLAND — Higher wages could be coming by fall for people who work in the city.

The first steps were taken March 20 when Mayor Michael Brennan convened the first meeting of his Minimum Wage Advisory Committee for a 90-minute discussion on if and how the city might enact its own minimum-wage standards.

The Minimum Wage Advisory Committee was established by Brennan, without City Council involvement, after he made wage equality a goal in his inaugural address. Brennan said he hopes to have a minimum wage ordinance in front of the council Finance Committee by September.

“I think it is important from a social justice and economic point of view,” Brennan said.

The committee includes Opportunity Alliance Chief Executive Officer Mike Tarpinian, Maine Women’s Lobby Executive Director Eliza Townsend, the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church, Maine Green Independent Party Chairman Tom MacMillan, city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer Chris Hall, and University of Southern Maine Professor Charles Colgan.

Brennan said he is interested in increasing the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour, but how much and to what extent of city businesses remains open to discussion.

He said he supports the recent call by President Barack Obama to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, although Colgan cautioned that any increase should be made in stages.

“People are more comfortable phasing it in, because it is a predictable set of changes. But that is a political preference,” Colgan said.

“I haven’t come to any set idea of what the number would look like at this point,” Brennan said, but he suggested a target might be a wage set at 50 percent to 60 percent of the median or average hourly wage in Portland.

West-Chuhta said she is still researching whether the city can legally enact its own minimum beyond the state law. She said state law does not “expressly pre-empt” a local ordinance and has home-rule provisions.

Local minimum-wage laws have been enacted in other cities, including San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., West-Chuhta said, while attempts in New York City and Baltimore have been overturned in court.

A wage ordinance could also be written just to cover municipal employees and contracted city workers.

Brennan said almost all municipal staff earn at least $11.50 per hour. Job openings posted on the city website show there are concessions, custodial and crossing guard jobs with starting wages around $10 per hour or less. The seasonal park ranger job also lists a beginning wage from $10 to $12 per hour.

Colgan found himself the center of attention for much of the meeting after he was asked about the potential economic effect.

While he said it was “mostly untrue” an increased minimum wage would have any widespread effects on employment, Colgan said it could cut into the economic growth rate in Portland compared to neighboring communities without an increased minimum.

That could be tempered by overall economic improvement that reduces the local unemployment rate and leads to business owners increasing wages on their own to attract employees, Colgan said.

He said he also foresees a decline in retail jobs, which traditionally paid minimum wage, over the next 30 years.

How many people are earning minimum wage now is uncertain, Colgan said, in part because it may be paid as a training wage. An increased minimum could lead to increases for workers paid above the rate, too, he added, maybe as much as $1 per hour.

Colgan said he supports having minimum wages, but believes it is important they are increased to help buying power, and he made a distinction between a minimum wage and “living wage.”

“If your standard is a living wage, it is a pretty large leap to make,” he said.

Punctuating his desire to see a minimum wage increase in the city, Brennan also took part in the Give America a Raise bus tour that arrived at City Hall around 3 p.m. Monday.

The tour, organized by Americans United for Change and the Maine People’s Alliance, also supports the national minimum wage increase. Brennan was joined by U.S. Rep Mike Michaud, who is the Democratic candidate for governor, and U.S. Department of Labor official Laura Fortman to highlight a Center for American Progress Action Fund report saying the increase would benefit 121,000 Maine residents and generate more than $97 million in economic activity.

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

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.