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August 12th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Wage Against The Machine

Low-paid workers are in the lurch. Mayor Sam Adams promises a fix.

     
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PENNY WISE AND POUND FOOLISH: The City of Portland decided not to raise the fair wage by 31 cents, but Mayor Sam Adams vows to change that. IMAGE: Jason Rainey

The lowest-paid security guards, parking attendants and custodians working on behalf of the City of Portland did not get raises this year.

But City Commissioners gave themselves and all other municipal employees a 2.8 percent cost-of-living increase in the 2009-2010 budget.

That discrepancy, WW has learned, is the result of a decision in May from the City’s Office of Management and Finance to save money by freezing Portland’s “fair wage” at $9.50 an hour, last year’s threshold. But the edict wasn’t widely known until July, when OMF wrote to all City bureau directors, telling them, “there are not sufficient funds available to authorize an adjustment” to the so-called fair wage this year.

That marks the first time since 2003 the City has failed to raise the fair wage, which is the minimum pay for hundreds of employees working for the City via outside vendors with City contracts. Those employees include 120 ushers, ticket takers and stadium workers at PGE Park, which is about to undergo a multimillion-dollar face-lift in part with public funding.

“The City is looking at spending millions of dollars to renovate PGE Park, and yet we can’t seem to provide a wage adjustment?” says James Hester, a union representative with Oregon AFSCME Council 75, which represents some of the 6,000 Portland City workers who did get a cost-of-living bump. “It seems, for lack of a better word, back asswards. A modest cost-of-living increase is not going to break the bank.”

There are no precise figures for how much the City stands to save overall by freezing the fair wage, which amounts to $11.26 an hour once benefits are factored in. A 2.8 percent increase would translate to 31 cents more an hour.

Although the Office of Management and Finance has the power to decide whether the City should raise its fair wage overall, each City bureau separately implements the policy when it negotiates its contracts with outside vendors.

Rough estimates show a relatively small number of workers are affected by the fair wage rule, suggesting an increase wouldn’t break even a piggy bank, let alone the City’s $530 million general fund budget.

For example, Portland Parks Recreation and the Office of Management and Finance contract with a significant number of workers covered by the City’s fair wage provision. If those 100 workers clocked 40 hours a week year-round, a 31-cents-an-hour pay raise would total about $65,000 this year—a little more than what Mayor Sam Adams gave to the Oregon Food Bank in his 2009-2010 budget. Adams’ chief of staff, Tom Miller, estimated the OMF portion of that cost would be about $25,000.

The decision by OMF never came before the City Council during its months-long budget hearings. It also never came up during the more recent discussions about renovating PGE Park, although the City agreed to continue subsidizing the wages of PGE Park employees in those negotiations.

“Wow,” says Margaret Butler, director of Jobs with Justice, the Portland group that advocated for fair wages at PGE Park during the City’s contentious talks with Merritt Paulson, who employs the ushers, ticket takers and stadium workers at the public facility. “I didn’t actually know that.”

Neither, apparently, did the mayor. After learning about the apparent oversight from Commissioner Amanda Fritz at the end of July, Adams directed the Office of Management and Finance to authorize the cost-of-living increases that were overlooked—but only in bureaus such as OMF that he runs.

Those bureaus don’t include the parks bureau, which is overseen by Commissioner Nick Fish.

But Miller says the mayor is now exploring whether his decision, which hasn’t taken effect yet, should apply to all bureaus.

Portland’s fair wage traces its history to 1996, when Oregon’s minimum wage was just $4.75 an hour.

As part of a nationwide movement to improve the wages of cities’ lowest-paid workers, members of the City Council decided outside vendors who wanted to do business with the city would have to offer salaries substantially higher than the minimum wage. In 1996, they made the City’s first fair wage $6.75 an hour.

On Monday, employees at one of the City’s six parking garages wondered when the lowest-paid parking attendants among them would get a salary boost this year.

As cars streamed out of the Smart Park garage on Southwest 10th Avenue and Yamhill Street for rush hour, a newly hired employee who declined to give his name arrived for his shift. Parking rates at the garage went up July 13. But so far, the 20-year-old father of two toddlers must make do with $9.50 an hour.

“It’s not fair,” he says.


FACT: Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz declined to accept cost-of-living pay increases. Commissioners Randy Leonard and Dan Saltzman, however, accepted the raise.
 
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