BANGOR, Maine — In a 6-3 City Council vote this week, Portland became the first municipality in the state to increase its local minimum wage, surpassing the statewide minimum of $7.50 per hour.
But a similar proposal to increase wages for Bangor’s lowest paid workers still faces an uphill battle as the City Council prepares to introduce the ordinance during its meeting July 13 and hold a public hearing on the issue July 15.
“I don’t really suspect that it will move much beyond this public information session, frankly,” Councilor Josh Plourde said of the proposal this week, noting that the city’s economy differs markedly from Portland’s.
If approved, the ordinance proposed by Councilor Joe Baldacci would incrementally increase the local minimum wage to $8.25 per hour in 2016, $9 per hour in 2017 and $9.75 in 2018.
After that, the minimum wage would fluctuate with the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation. The proposal excludes tipped employees as well as workers under the age of 18.
The proposal was praised by some current and former minimum-wage earners this week who said it would help make ends meet as well as save for expenses such as college.
“I’m going to college and the expenses that come with college are … unreal. It all adds up so fast, and even an extra dollar would be helpful,” said Mackenzie Winchester, a lifeguard who earns $7.74 per hour at Pancoe Pool in Bangor.
But some small-business owners warned it could lead to job losses by increasing the cost of hiring new workers.
Baldacci needs to recruit at least two additional supporters on the nine-member council if his ordinance is to have any chance of passing.
Polled this week by the Bangor Daily News, supporters included only Councilors Patricia Blanchette, Sean Faircloth and Baldacci.
“If we wait for the state of Maine to raise the minimum wage, it’s not going to happen,” Blanchette said.
Maine has not raised its statewide minimum wage since 2009, though the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal-leaning policy group, has launched a campaign for a citizen-initiated referendum that could raise it to $12 per hour by 2020.
Meanwhile, Councilors Nelson Durgin, Pauline Civiello and Plourde all said they oppose the proposal in its current form.
“I really think that something this important needs to be done at an administrative level that covers the whole state,” Durgin said. “I don’t think one community in the corner of the state or the middle of the state should be raising the minimum wage.”
Councilor David Nealley did not return requests for comment this week, but said in a February email to the BDN that the issue “belongs at the federal and state level of government” and that Baldacci is “playing into a very popular theme.”
That leaves only Councilors Ben Sprague and Gibran Graham in the undecided category. Unless an opponent changes sides, Baldacci must recruit both for his proposal to pass.
Graham and Sprague both said this week they were reserving judgment until they hear from councilors and constituents at upcoming meetings.
Sprague expressed reservations this week about handling minimum wage at the local level.
“It should be happening at the state and federal level,” he said.
Graham said he is a big proponent of making sure people are able to work for a livable wage, which he said does not appear to be the case for the state or the city overall. He also said, however, that he had not yet seen Baldacci’s proposed ordinance.
Meanwhile, Plourde, an opponent of the Baldacci proposal, said he might entertain a minimum wage increase on a regional level that involves surrounding towns and cities.
Plourde described Bangor as being part of a regional economic district that includes surrounding towns and cities, unlike Portland, which he said is really its own economic district.
Balacci admitted this week he faces an uphill battle getting his proposal through the council.
“I agreed from the beginning that it was an uphill battle, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting,” he said.
Baldacci said Portland’s vote — which will increase the minimum wage there to $10.10 per hour in 2016 and $10.68 per hour in 2016, then tie it to inflation — puts more pressure on Bangor to increase its own wages.
Without competitive wages, he said, young families will be drawn to places like Portland where wages are higher. He added that large retail chains in Bangor “can certainly afford a minimum wage increase.”
“We’ve talked a lot about trying to keep young people and young families here, and part of that whole discussion is going to be wages,” he said, noting that the majority of students in the Bangor School District are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, meaning their families meet federal poverty guidelines.
According to school officials, 1,899 of the 3,744 students in the Bangor School District as of June qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch.
Sprague, who has championed efforts to attract and keep young people in the Bangor area, was not as concerned about the potential for Portland’s minimum wage hike drawing young workers away from the Bangor area.
“It might,” he said. “But the best way to draw young people is going to be by creating the $20 to $25 per hour jobs. That’s where the robust economic growth that we need is going to come from.”
For Bangor resident Melissa Connors, raising the minimum wage is about making sure those willing and able to work can afford the cost of living.
In an interview with the BDN, she said she worked for more than two years at Dollar Tree, starting at the statewide minimum of $7.50 per hour at the store.
After two years, she said her pay had only increased to $7.65 per hour as she worked to support herself and a teenage son. Hours were irregular, she said, ranging from 10 to 20 per week.
“I lost my food stamps, because I wasn’t getting 20 hours,” she said. “It would be hard to volunteer somewhere because I have to walk everywhere. I couldn’t afford a bus pass, so that’s a 2-mile hike one way to work, and I was doing that a few times a week.”
To make ends meet, Connors lived in Section 8 housing. An extra $2.25 a week, she said, would have allowed her to buy more groceries, toiletries and “little things people don’t think about.”
“I did without a lot of things. There’s no extra money to be able to do anything fun,” she said. “You can’t eat out, you can’t go see a movie, there’s just so much you end up sacrificing. You can’t buy a vehicle.”
While working at Dollar Tree, Connor earned a two-year medical assisting degree from Beal College and eventually took a job as a sterile processing technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She says she now earns a livable wage.
Some small-business owners, however, have raised concerns about the potential impact of a minimum wage hike.
According to Jon Parker, owner of Black Bear Lawn Care in Bangor, a minimum-wage hike could mean fewer entry level positions for high school and college-age workers looking for temporary employment.
“It would have a pretty devastating impact on anybody who wants a part-time job,” he said.
Parker said he employs 14 full-time employees, all of whom earn more than minimum wage.
Seasonally, though, he hires between six and 10 part-time workers who make minimum wage. If that wage increases, he said, he may not be able to fill those part-time jobs.
Having an entry-level pay rate is important for workers looking for temporary employment or looking to work their way into a higher paying position, he said.
“Someone shouldn’t deserve to be paid more than minimum wage or an increased minimum wage just because a warm body showed up. I mean, you’ve got to work and get the attendance to get yourself up there,” he said.
In addition to affecting local businesses, a minimum wage hike also would affect the city.
According to Assistant City Manager Robert Farrar, between 115 and 135 of the city’s 190 part-time seasonal and temporary workers earn less than Baldacci’s proposed $8.25 per hour.
Many of those employees work in the Parks and Recreation Department, but more than half serve as election clerks, he said.
While all of the city’s roughly 460 full-time workers make at least $10.67 per hour — above Baldacci’s proposed $9.75 in 2017 — the city has 13 pay scales for part-time temporary seasonal workers which start at less than $8.25 per hour and seven that start at the statewide minimum wage.
On average, only six to 10 of the city’s seasonal part-time workers are under the age of 18 and thus exempt from the minimum wage hike as proposed by Baldacci.
Based on current staff levels and pay rates, Farrar projected a minimum wage increase would cost the city between $50,000 to $60,000 in the first year. That money is not included in the city’s budget.
While the state’s minimum wage has not increased since 2009, it remains unclear exactly how many would be affected by a minimum wage hike in Bangor.
Durgin estimated there is a very small number of workers actually earning minimum wage and they often are teenagers just getting into the job market.
“They’re very apt to work up to more than a minimum wage and very quickly, but there’s not a lot of people working at minimum wage in Maine,” he said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the roughly 378,000 Maine workers who earn an hourly rate, about 3,000 earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2012 and another 8,000 earned less than that.
But Baldacci’s proposed wage hike would affect more than just the lowest paid workers in the city.
According to Todd Gabe, an economics professor at the University of Maine, if the local minimum wage were increased to $8.25, 7 percent of the 67,720 workers in the Bangor metropolitan statistical area would be affected.
At $9 per hour, 12 percent would be affected, and at $9.75 per hour, 18 percent would be affected, he said.
Additionally, a minimum wage hike has the potential to push other wages higher as employers strive to maintain internal and external pay equity.
That can occur when employers increase existing payscales in order to ensure that workers who have earned raises over a period of years do not end up earning the same amount as a new hire working under the increased minimum wage.
It also can occur when employers who pay more than minimum wage increase their starting wages in order to be more competitive with the new minimum.
For example, in February, Michael Bazinet, president of Creative Digital Imaging in Bangor, told the BDN a minimum wage increase would force his company to increase starting pay for new hires from more than $10 per hour to $12 or $13 per hour.
John Porter, president and CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said in February the biggest issue regarding a local minimum wage hike was that it sends a message that Bangor might do other things that would be regarded as unfriendly to business, which could affect economic development.
Monday’s City Council meeting is at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. Wednesday’s public hearing is at 6 p.m. at the same location.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.