When Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a minimum wage bill into law in March, it was the highest statewide wage floor in the U.S. It was also the most convoluted, setting three different wages and raise schedules depending on the area’s population.
Wages will rise to $12.50 in rural Oregon, $13.50 in mid-size regions and $14.75 in greater Portland, all by the year 2022.
But before the ink was even dry, Democrats, who control the state House, Senate and governor’s office, announced they wanted to change the bill that was rammed through in a five-week legislative session despite fierce Republican opposition.
“They just wanted to pass something,” said economist Eric Fruits, a Portland Republican. “They were really worried about the 15 Now people sending something to the ballot, and I think they got so snakebit they would have passed anything that was called a minimum wage increase.”
Labor unions, spearheaded by the S.E.I.U., had been collecting signatures for a $15 statewide wage initiative and hoping to build on recent victories in several cities.
But Oregon Democrats acted before state economists even had a chance to weigh in. Last week, state analysts concluded in a prepared forecast the high wage will “result in approximately 40,000 fewer jobs in 2025 than would have been the case absent the legislation.”
Orchard owner John Zielinski said his family business will take a big hit.
“When those pears and apples are sold on the market, they’re not going to give us any more money because we’re from Oregon and have a higher pay rate,” said Zielinski of E.Z. Orchards.
Rural counties threatened to file a lawsuit against the state, calling the minimum wage a maximum mess and an unfunded mandate. Oregon’s constitution allows local governments to opt out of state programs that raise costs significantly and are not funded by the legislature.
Hearing the outcry, Democratic leaders quickly admitted they may have messed up. They promised a fix-it bill next year allowing for a lower training wages for young workers and some new hires.
But not everyone in the party or the public is onboard with the proposed changes. Low wage worker activists and some Democrats fear a loophole that will be abused.
“I think having a sub-minimum wage, while it might sound good, could end up hurting the very people we’re trying to help,” said Democratic state Senator Diane Rosenbaum.
Republican leaders support the fixes, including a possible exemption for some Eastern Oregon farmers who, if nothing changes, will have to pay $5 more per hour for labor than their competitors across the state line in Idaho.