PORTLAND, Maine — An ordinance to create a city-wide minimum wage may not get full City Council consideration until February 2015, Mayor Michael Brennan said Dec. 11 after a public hearing held by the City Council Finance Committee.
The ordinance to create a minimum wage beginning at $9.50 per hour continued to draw praise and criticism during the City Hall hearing, but the committee, with Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. as chairman, would like an impact study before making its recommendation to the full City Council.
Since a Nov. 20 committee meeting where the wage was discussed, the proposed ordinance has been tweaked to now include workers as young as 16, instead of 18, and to establish a city position to enforce the ordinance at a potential annual cost of $40,000 to $50,000, plus benefits.
The ordinance would increase the wage from the state required $7.50 per hour to $9.50 on July 1, 2015, and be followed by increases to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2016, and $10.68 on Jan. 1, 2017.
Future increases would be tied to increases in the urban measure of the Consumer Price Index.
Countering opinions on the wages and how they affect workers earning tips did not differ much from those heard in hearings dating back to August, and centered on business owners fearing an unsustainable increase in their costs, while supporters spoke of an unsustainable cost of living in the city.
“Where is the money going to come from?” asked Don Rubinoff, the owner of Back Cove Pizza and BBQ on Ocean Avenue. He said he already works more than 100 hours a week and cannot afford to hire staff based on mandated minimums.
Supporters, including Maine Green Independent Party members Tom MacMillan, Asher Platts and Lauren Besanko, said it is time to raise the minimum wage to a standard where it is a living wage, especially because cost-of-living measurements indicate the city is becoming as expensive as Chicago.
City resident Sailor Cartwright, a member of the Southern Maine Worker’s Council, said her wages have increased less than $2 per hour from the $8.50 she earned in 1999, while she now shares a home with three others because rents have doubled.
While opponents said “wage creep” would require raises for those now earning just above the proposed minimum wage, Cartwright said it was due.
“It has been creeping slowly enough since rent has tripled,” she said.
Tipped wages continued to be a source of contention in terms of how the state and city laws might conflict and what it could cost city restaurant owners.
State law allows business owners to pay staff earning $30 a month in tips 50 percent of the minimum wage, and restaurant owners including Steve DiMillo of DiMillo’s on the Water have long argued tipped staff are the best paid staff.
If the ordinance boosts the city tipped wage to $4.75 per hour and keeps it at 50 percent of the city wage after that, DiMillo said Dec. 11, it could cost him $91,000 in just the first year.
Chris Tyll, the owner of Pat’s Pizza on Market Street, estimated the new wage would cost $41,000 initially, and said any minimum wage increase should be done at the state level.
Brennan has said tipped workers would only have to be paid more than the tipped wage when their earnings do not amount to the minimum wage, but Greg Dugal, Maine Restaurant Association president and CEO, said unless the ordinance specifically lists the “tipped credit” at $3.75 per hour, it could be interpreted in a costly manner for restaurant owners.
Nat Lippert of the Southern Maine Worker’s Council disputed suggestions that tipped workers are among the best paid in restaurants and said it is time to stop the economic squeeze on workers trying to live in Portland.
“We need to be talking about an hourly wage that would cover all the expenses and basic needs that allow us to live with dignity,” he said. “We have the ability to make this city affordable.”
Initially written to exclude workers under 18, the proposed ordinance now sets the minimum age at 16.
“It seems appropriate to not exclude both of these categories since such exclusions will likely lead to confusion,” city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta wrote in a memo to the Finance Committee, adding the state minimum wage is also applied to people 16 and older.
Larry Davis, owner of the Down Front store on Peaks Island, said he employs more than 20 teenagers and supports a lower wage for workers under 18 because he doubts anyone would hire someone with no work history at $9.50 per hour or more.
Maine Women’s Lobby Executive Director Eliza Townsend, also a member the subcommittee Brennan formed in March to consider a minimum wage policy and its effects, supported eliminating the tipped wage credit and paying the new minimum wage to workers under 18.
Townsend said the ordinance would benefit single mothers and teens who are working to support themselves or their families, without harming businesses that rely on seasonal tourism.
“The ocean isn’t up and leaving, the things that make this a beautiful city are not up and leaving,” she said.