Portland voters may be asked to boost minimum wage again

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A proposal to increase Portland’s minimum wage and create a citywide paid sick leave policy is being discussed by city councilors and could go to voters in November.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, a member of the council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee, said referendum discussions began after the council failed to extend the city’s pandemic state of emergency in January. Doing so prevented the continuation of a short-lived 50 percent emergency increase in the minimum wage to $19.50 per hour, which would have been the highest minimum wage in the country. 

Andrew Zarro
Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro.

The current minimum wage in Portland is $13 per hour for hourly employees and $6.50 per hour for employees who earn over $100 per month in tips. Elsewhere in Maine, the minimum wage is $12.75 per hour or $6.38 per hour for tipped workers. 

In 2020, voters in Portland backed a referendum that gradually increases the city’s minimum wage, which will top out at $15 per hour in 2024.

Additionally, when the emergency increase didn’t last, Zarro said, some workers started asking “’what happens if I get sick and I can’t work?’” 

“What we’re hearing is … ‘can we have a conversation about what (paid sick leave) would look like at a municipal level?’” Zarro said.

The complication, he said, is that the council can’t change the tiered minimum wage increase for five years because it was enacted via referendum – even if it wants to raise the wage.

Zarro said the committee has decided, however, that it could recommend the council put an amendment to the wage ordinance on the ballot for voters and let them decide via referendum.

“The last three (committee) meetings we’ve gone back and forth to find what’s possible and is there a will,” he said. “We found it is possible and there is a will to have that conversation, to bring in professionals and look at the data.”

Zarro said the primary focus of the discussion and potential referendum question would be on the minimum wage and discussing if it is also a livable wage in Portland.

“Is it enough?” he said. “My guess is no, it’s not enough. Based on what we’ve heard, it’s not enough.”

Paid sick leave, he said, is worth looking at under the minimum wage umbrella following the community response to the hazard pay debate last winter. He said the committee will discuss whether a municipality can require paid sick leave, but he has “no expectations” about what it may decide.

A complicating factor is timing.

To get an amendment on the November ballot, the committee would have to have a proposal to the council by July or August, and it would have to be approved and ready for the city clerk to print by Sept. 1.

While it’s early and there are still conversations to hold, Zarro said the timing question is important.

“There are so many variables at this point, but I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I think we do need a lot of engagement. I want as many people to participate in this conversation. It’s a big one, it’s important.”

Zarro said he doesn’t have a specific figure in mind for a “livable” minimum wage. He said the Maine Center for Economic Policy provided a report to the committee that estimated Portland could support a $15-per-hour minimum. It also included a Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculation that a living wage in Portland should be just over $17 per hour.

Zarro noted the hazard pay that went into effect last year temporarily pushed the minimum wage up to about $18 per hour and said most businesses were comfortable with it.

“I think that range is where the data is pointing us, between $16 and $18,” he said, “which is a substantial increase from where we’re at.”

Quincy Hentzel
Portland Regional Chamber President and CEO Quincy Hentzel. (Courtesy PRCC)

Quincy Hentzel, president and chief executive of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said her organization has been closely monitoring the minimum wage discussions held by the Housing and Economic Development Committee.

“While our hope is that we see the full implementation of the current minimum wage ordinance before we take up additional minimum wage efforts, we do look forward to working with the council to understand the implications of further raising the wage in the current labor market,” Hentzel said Monday.

She said chamber members report starting wages “significantly above” the $13-per-hour minimum wage, “along with aggressive benefits packages to attract and retain employees in this constrained environment.” She cautioned against enacting a wage that would harm the market.

“We want to be careful to not implement a higher wage that could affect the ability of employers to offer a full range of benefits to their employees,” Hentzel said. “It’s something that needs a balanced approach and a topic we are happy to engage in.”

Zarro said he hopes people come to the committee’s May 3 meeting to offer their opinions.

“I know that conversations around wage and labor are really challenging for folks. I really get it,” Zarro said. “But we are going into this fully transparent, open, ready for dialogue and debate. … This is their chance to hold us accountable as elected officials and hold each other accountable as Portlanders.”