Income disparity has gotten increasing attention over the past year. It's even a prime topic of discussion for business leaders at the World Economic Forum currently going on in Switzerland. And so Portland Mayor Michael Brennan says it's time for Portland to take up the issue as well.
He says 46 percent of Portlanders over age 25 have an undergraduate or graduate degree, but "we have a lot of people who are underemployed, and if we really want people to be able to live in the city, to buy a house, to raise a family, we have to close that income gap. We have to continue to create jobs that allow people to live in the city."
Brennan doesn't have a specific number in mind. He plans to sit down with business and other stakeholder groups to discuss the idea over the next year or so, and says some suggestions may extend beyond raising the current rate of $7.50 an hour.
"So I think it should be a robust discussion about a number of different strategies that we can employ to reduce the cost of housing, reduce the cost of healthcare, and also to increase the incomes that people have," Brennan says.
At Salvage BBQ in Portland, line cook Johnny Colgan (left) sautees a brisket sandwich. It's the food service industry that employs the majority of minimum-wage workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But here at Salvage BBQ, which is one of three Portland restaurants shared by the same owners, vice president Garry Bowcott says their 100 or so employees already make well above the minimum wage - 10 bucks an hour.
Bowcott says the three restaurants could actually benefit from a minimum wage boost. "Probably what would happen would be the fast food restaurants would raise the prices, and restaurants like ours suddenly become more attractive to people who would normally go to the fast food restaurant."
Another Portland restaurant, Grace, also pays above minimum wage. Owner Anne Verrill, who employs about 90 people between Grace and her other restaurant, Foreside Tavern in Falmouth, says there's a good reason to pay her employees at least $9 an hour.
"You can't get a 17-year-old these days to work as a dishwasher for $7.50," Verrill says. "It's hard work, it's manual labor. They're up to their ears in trash and dishes and dirty things all day long. They should be compensated more than $7.50."
Both Verrill and Bowcott say servers make half the minimum wage, which is amply boosted by tips. Verrill says even if she has to bump up servers' base pay due to a minimum wage increase, she doubts it would have little effect on her business.
While some support Mayor Brennan's proposal, Chris Hall with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce says he doubts most businesses are as enthused. "You know, my members will probably begin this conversation from a position of saying, 'No, that's not a good idea.'"
But Hall says income disparity is an unavoidable conversation, and he's glad Mayor Brennan is taking a thoughtful, fact-gathering approach. He says there are many factors at play when considering the most effective solution to improving wages.
"Well, I think if you look at the national conversation, or even globally, the earned income tax credit is really the preferred mechanism to help people who are working top up their earnings," Hall says. "And it is much more directly responive to everybody, not just people at the very lowest layer of the economy."
If Portland does raise the minimum wage, it will join a handful of other cities and counties in the U.S. that have taken similar measures. Portland City Councilor Nick Mavodones says he's keeping an open mind about the proposal. The first thing he wants to know, he says, is how many Portland businesses actually pay the minimum wage.
Photo: Patty Wight