Depending on whom you ask, raising Portland’s minimum wage to $18 an hour would either be an extreme measure or a reflection of labor market reality.
The Portland City Council is considering an increase to the city’s $13-an-hour minimum – which is on its way to $15 in 2024 – and the Maine Democratic Socialists of America’s “Livable Portland” campaign is gathering signatures to put an $18-an- hour minimum wage on the November ballot in the city.
Some members of the business community are warning that such a rapid increase would stifle growth and even push some out of the city, but others argued that most Portland workers already make $18 an hour in today’s hyper-competitive job market.
A council committee on Tuesday discussed putting its own minimum wage increase before voters this fall, although members of the panel haven’t settled on a figure for the new pay floor.
Gudrun Cobb, who owns Uncommon Paws on Exchange Street with her husband, said she has to offer about $18 an hour or more just to get applicants for jobs. She has six employees at her store and a studio where she creates pet products, such as collars and leashes.
Even Cobb’s grandson, who is working for her this summer, will make more than the current city minimum, she said.
So as a practical matter, Cobb doesn’t think it really makes any difference whether the city’s official minimum hourly pay is increased to $18.
“The market is doing it,” she said.
Sandra Serbin, who owns clothing store Expressly Trends, not far from Cobb’s shop in the Old Port, agreed that a labor shortage in Maine has already driven up pay to the point where a minimum wage mandate is essentially unnecessary.
“My daughter babysits – she’s 15 – and she gets $20 an hour,” she said.
But Serbin worries that if the labor market softens and wages can come down, mandating the higher wage could make it difficult for Portland businesses to stay competitive with those in neighboring towns that don’t have their own higher minimum wages.
LIVABLE OR EXTREME?
Maine’s statewide minimum wage is $12.75 an hour, considerably higher than the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum that nearly 20 states still rely on. As of July 1, when new minimums take effect in some states, there will be just eight states with higher base wages than Maine: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington.
Still, dozens of cities across the country have imposed their own higher minimums, with the highest being Seattle at about $17.25 an hour.
Patrick Blanke, who manages Peruvian Link, an Alpaca fur products seller, thinks the wage should be increased to make sure that workers in Portland can live on what they make.
“The way it’s going, under $18 an hour is impossible to live on,” Blanke said.
Before getting the job at Peruvian Link, Blanke said, he quit a couple of jobs because the owner turned down his requests for a raise above $15 an hour.
“Just to hire people, we need to pay more,” he said.
But some in the business community argue that Portlanders shouldn’t just accept a sharp increase in required wages.
David Machesney, owner of Pratt Abbott dry cleaning, said he would consider relocating the two dry cleaning stores he has in Portland if wages are increased.
Machesney said starting pay at his 12 locations is $16 to $20 an hour, but that having a mandated higher wage for his Portland employees would create unfairness and a management headache. He would be required to pay his Portland employees, in some cases, a higher wage than those doing the same job at his other 10 Maine locations.
“It doesn’t just affect a few people in Portland, it affects all of them,” he said.
And Quincy Hentzel, president and chief executive of the Portland Regional Chamber, said that widespread effect isn’t taken into consideration when Portland adopts measures by referendum.
The City Council would be required to put its own minimum wage increase before voters, because a higher minimum wage already was adopted via referendum in 2020. The citywide minimum is due to continue rising by $1 an hour every year through 2024, when it will hit $15 an hour, and any amendment to that rule would need to be approved by voters.
“Government by referendum is a losing proposition,” Hentzel said, pointing to other voter-adopted measures that she blames for stalling development in Portland.
Raising the minimum wage to $18 an hour would be “extreme,” Hentzel said, and among the highest in the country if adopted. But if prevailing wages are already at or above $18 an hour, she doesn’t think the city should be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by mandating the minimum.
Keith Maddis, an employee at Sherman’s Books and Stationery in Portland, said boosting the minimum to $18 an hour would constitute a raise for him, even though he is not a minimum-wage worker.
“It would be positive for me,” he said, “and things are expensive in Portland.”
Ed McKersie, founder and advisory board chair of economic development group Live + Work in Maine, said it’s important that Mainers are paid a livable wage, but he doesn’t think it makes a lot of sense to attack that issue on a city-by -city base.
His organization seeks to attract both individuals and businesses to Maine, and McKersie said people thinking about moving to the state aren’t looking at minimum wages in Portland versus South Portland or Scarborough.
“At a practical level, we’re all in the same boat,” he said, adding that Portland officials should consider ways to deal with wage issues in concert with the surrounding region.
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