SALEM — Oregon’s minimum wage won’t rise in 2016, which is expected to save money for farms and other businesses but also invigorate advocates of a higher rate.
Due to stagnant inflation, as measured by the federal “consumer price index” for urban areas, the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries will keep the minimum wage at $9.25 per hour next year.
Both supporters and opponents of a higher wage floor believe that the flat rate will be used as an argument in favor of a substantial increase.
“It’s a mixed blessing, politically,” said Jenny Dresler, state public policy director for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
While it should be good news for low-income workers that prices aren’t rising sharply, the unchanged minimum wage will likely spur political action, said Steve Buckstein, senior policy analyst for the Cascade Policy Institute, a free market think tank.
“It probably will increase pressure in the legislature, or through a ballot initiative, to raise the minimum wage next year,” he said. “Both efforts will be bolstered politically by the fact the minimum wage is staying flat.”
Proponents say the unchanged rate is based on a nationwide measurement of inflation and doesn’t reflect unique factors, such as increased housing costs, seen in Portland and elsewhere in Oregon.
“To bring people out of poverty, we need at least $15 and in places like Portland, more than that,” said Jamie Patridge, chief petitioner for a 2016 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.
Patridge said he was disappointed by the flat rate but acknowledged that it will likely convince people that the current inflation-based system is inadequate and persuade them to take action at the ballot box.
“It’s probably positive for our campaign but negative for low-wage workers,” he said. “Workers should not be living in poverty. Every worker should be paid a living wage.”
The Oregon Center for Public Policy, a non-profit that supports increasing the minimum wage, said the rate would be $19 per hour if it had tracked worker productivity for the past half-century.
“We’re seeing growing support for some action,” Tyler Mac Innis, policy analyst for OCPP.
To achieve economic security in Oregon, a single adult with a child needs to earn roughly $45,000-$51,000 per year, depending on the region, according to the group. With the current minimum wage, a worker earns $19,240 per year.
“It’s certainly not good news that it’s staying flat. It highlights the fact minimum wage workers need a significant increase in the minimum wage,” said Mac Innis.
Dresler, of the Oregon Farm Bureau, counters that farmers in the state compete against others in the U.S. and internationally, so a higher minimum wage puts them at a disadvantage.
Oregon already has the second highest minimum wage in the nation behind Washington, she said.
“That keeps us less competitive than it does our neighbors” in the Midwest and South, Dresler said.
Farms in Oregon are currently highly diverse, but a major hike in the minimum wage would likely convince growers to transition to crops that are less labor intensive, she said. “That would be one of the reactions to that sort of increase.”
Other types of companies will have to raise prices, lay off workers or reduce benefits to cope with a higher minimum wage — or they’ll simply go out of business, said Buckstein of the Cascade Policy Institute.
“There are always unintended consequences,” he said. “There’s no magic pot of money that businesses have to pay more wages.”