Editorial: Raising the minimum wage and raising germs

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Oregon’s minimum wage rises again next month, even as the number of jobs that pay the minimum continues to decline.

Just 6.6% of all Oregon jobs pay the minimum wage, according to the latest data from Sarah Cunningham, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department. That’s down from 7.3% a year earlier.

It’s not clear why fewer Oregon jobs pay the minimum, but it could be that in the highly competitive hiring market the state enjoyed before the coronavirus that employers simply had to pay more to attract workers.

The minimum wage is more than a floor, though. It can push up wages across the lower end of the pay scale. While that is rewarding to workers it worries business owners, who are concerned about rising costs and warn that higher wages can lead to fewer jobs.

The Oregon Legislature approved a succession of minimum wage increases in 2016, and those pay hikes clearly did not derail the strong labor market that persisted until the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Oregon’s jobless rate was at a historic low of around 3.3% in the months before the pandemic hit, but the calculus may be different with the state headed into a steep recession that economists say will take years to recover from.

Oregon actually has three different minimum wages. Legislation created a tiered system to account for varying costs of living in different parts of the state.

The minimum wage is rising 75 cents, to $13.25 an hour, in the tri-county Portland area. The hourly minimum is rising to $12 an hour in most of the rest of Western Oregon and Deschutes County, and $11.50 an hour in most of Eastern and Central Oregon including Crook and Jefferson counties.

Washington has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation, $13.50 an hour. But many cities have higher minimums – Seattle’s is $15.45 and San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago have all set a $15 hourly minimum.

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