Oregon $15/hour minimum wage backers, foes assemble ahead of session

Proposal is part of a few that focus on spreading economic recovery to workers

By Taylor W. Anderson / The Bulletin

Advocates looking for ways to spread the economic recovery from businesses that are doing well to employees who aren’t gathered momentum as the 2015 legislative session approaches with the release of a new report this week and formation of a new group.

Weak job prospects for many Oregonians have led to high costs — $1.7 billion a year — that taxpayers pay to “subsidize corporations’ reliance on a low-wage workforce,” says the Oregon Workforce Report, released Thursday by the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center.

The report’s release and the formation of a coalition of unions and other groups that calls itself A Fair Shot for Everyone have put a face on what will likely be a vocal movement this year pushing a slew of proposals they say would help average Oregonians.

The report said many businesses are reporting profits while workers are unable to find high-wage jobs with regular hours. More than 400,000 workers get low wages and many are minorities working in retail, restaurants, health care and maintenance, the report says.

“Systematic low-wage work … means the demand for public services is at a record high,” the report said. “Over 1 million Oregonians now rely on food stamps and other assistance to feed and support their families.”

Most of the 155,000 jobs lost during the recession in Oregon paid $25,000 to $50,000, and many of the jobs that have returned don’t pay the wages they used to, the report said.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, questioned the results of the report and said he believed a $15-an-hour minimum wage would result in job losses because businesses can’t afford to pay that price.

“I can give you a study that shows just about anything,” Knopp said. “The practical experience that I see and that I deal with on a daily basis is that business owners, especially small-business owners that make up a significant amount of Oregon’s economy, aren’t rolling in money.”

Knopp and Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, said the state’s $9.25-an-hour minimum wage, which is second in the nation to Washington and is indexed to inflation, is enough.

A bill circulating that picked up several Democratic sponsors from Western Oregon would raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour starting in January 2016. Teachers unions are also backing the proposal.

That bill already faces challenges and not just from Republicans.

House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, said during a conference of Oregon businesses Tuesday that she didn’t support a $15 minimum wage. She didn’t respond to requests for comment on what, if any, increase she’d support.

Gov. John Kitzhaber warned during his re-election campaign that higher wages could create a so-called benefits cliff, or the point where employees make enough money to disqualify them from state and federal benefits but still not enough to support a family.

Still, Kitzhaber said spreading the economic recovery around is central to his fourth term.

The governor called the unequal recovery “the elephant in the room,” in a recent speech in Portland. He told a group of nearly 1,000 business leaders at the business summit it was “disingenuous” to tout a strong recovery and job gains when many of the jobs don’t pay enough.

“It’s not that we aren’t creating well-paying jobs. We are. We’re just not creating them fast enough to replace the well-paying jobs we lost during the recession,” he said.

Another minimum wage group called 15 Now Portlandhas planned a rally at the Capitol later this month. Paired with the report and the new coalition, workers’ issues appear to be materializing ahead of Monday’s inauguration ceremonies and the Feb. 2 start of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, will team with Hoyle on a bill that would create a statewide sick leave policy, which Republicans say they oppose.

The state GOP also opposes the idea of creating a state-run retirement system for employees.

House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, also speaking at the business summit in Portland, said he didn’t support a state approach to these issues.

“It’s not true that people don’t have access to retirement accounts,” McLane said. “There’s a federal retirement account called Social Security, and everyone has that.”

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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