PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Michael Brennan last week said a proposed ordinance to raise the minimum wage in the city might be vetted next week by a City Council committee, and could go before the full council for consideration next month.
Brennan advocates hiking the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, and in March convened an advisory committee to explore if and how the city could enact such a standard.
The committee met Sept. 11 to finalize a recommendation in support of the increase. Brennan said the recommendation may be discussed by the council’s Finance Committee on Thursday, Sept. 25, and perhaps in a subsequent meeting or public hearing.
The agenda for the Finance Committee meeting was not yet posted on Tuesday. But the proposed raise could be taken up by the council in late October, Brennan said.
If the proposal is enacted, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2015, and guarantee most Portland workers an hourly wage of at least $9.50, more than 26 percent above the $7.50 minimum set by the state.
The measure would also call for a raise to $10.10 per hour in 2016 and another bump in 2017 to $10.68 per hour. Annual increases would then be made according to the rate of inflation.
The city manager’s office would be responsible for enforcing the ordinance, and employers who don’t comply could be subject to a fine of $75-$100 for each violation, according to Brennan.
In August, the proposal drew a mix of support and criticism at a public forum hosted by the committee. One of the most divisive issues was how a higher minimum wage would affect workers who make much of their living on gratuities.
State law allows employers to consider tipping as part of the wage they pay workers, as long as the workers receive at least $30 a month in tips and the credit for tips doesn’t exceed 50 percent of the state’s minimum wage.
At the August forum, and in similar discussions throughout the country, worker advocates have urged lawmakers to set a higher, “living” wage that doesn’t include such exceptions.
But restaurant owners and other business people have claimed a higher minimum wage and elimination of the “tip credit” would have disastrous economic effects. What’s more, these opponents say, the changes are unnecessary, since many restaurant employees and other service workers already earn more than the minimum wage.
At last week’s meeting, Brennan repeated his call for the higher minimum, but was content to leave the tip credit as is.
Based on advice of the city’s corporation counsel, he said, the proposed ordinance “should not stray far” from Maine’s minimum-wage rules.
“We can’t overrule what is explicitly in state law,” he said.
That means the maximum tip credit employers could apply in computing a worker’s paycheck would remain $3.75 per hour, or 50 percent of the state’s minimum wage. If, after the credit was applied, an employee earned less than the proposed minimum wage, the employer would be responsible for making up the difference, as under current law.
Some committee members suggested the proposed ordinance should create a separate minimum wage for tipped workers. Such a wage would reflect the state’s 50 percent cap on tip credit, but would be pegged to the new minimum.
“We may be setting the bar too low. We may not end up with the effect we want,” committee member Tom MacMillan said.
While committee members anxiously performed math exercises with the proposed wage, Brennan stressed the need for “incremental” change.
Chris O’Neil, lobbyist for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, repeated that caution. A separate minimum wage for tipped workers would be “just one more deviation” from state law, he pointed out.
“The more you deviate from state law,” he said, “the more exposed you are.”
Maine Restaurant Association President Greg Dugal urged the committee to spell out how the proposed ordinance would apply to tipped workers, whether the tip credit remains in place, or a separate minimum wage was created.
“If you have no tipped minimum wage in the ordinance, then there will be none,” he said.
The wording of the ordinance will likely be fine-tuned by the city’s counsel and further hashed out in next week’s committee meeting, according to Brennan.