KASIL KAPRIEL is a 52-year-old single mother and Portland resident who was born in Micronesia. She works in customer service at the airport and earns $9.25 an hour—Oregon's minimum wage.
Kapriel can't afford to pay her $750 monthly rent at one time, so she's got a deal with her landlord to pay half the rent twice each month. Because of this arrangement, she gets stuck paying a late fee.
"I'm right on the edge here," Kapriel said recently. "That's why I am so desperate."
Get used to hearing stories like this—hundreds of Oregonians are starting to get rowdy about "poverty wages." Kapriel and other activists are pressuring state legislators to increase the minimum wage, and if lawmakers won't move on it, the group is campaigning to get the issue on the November 2016 ballot.
It's a movement years in the making. America's working poor first made a collective call for increased wages a couple of years back, when fast food workers in New York walked off the job and demanded raises. In the years since, cities like Seattle and San Francisco have passed ordinances increasing the minimum wage to $15.
But Portland's usually active activists didn't get fired up about this issue until this time last year, when two things happened at roughly the same time: Portland-based 15 Now PDX organizer Justin Norton-Kertson and other activists started holding events, and Nick Caleb—a Concordia University professor and attorney who made a last-minute bid for Commissioner Dan Saltzman's seat—made a $15 minimum hourly wage a central part of his platform.
A year later, the 15 Now campaign has gained a lot of traction.
In December, the Multnomah County Commission voted to raise county employees' wages to $15 per hour within three years. Two months later, Portland City Council voted to create a $15 minimum for full-time city staffers and contractors.
But the fight rages on. On April 13, activists from across the state descended upon the capital to testify at a joint Senate and House public meeting discussing more than a dozen bills that address increasing the statewide mandatory minimum wage.
Two days later, hundreds of protesters flooded downtown Portland streets, marching from O'Bryant Square to city hall and then to the Portland State University campus. The march was part of a national movement in more than 200 cities, which staged strikes and demonstrations protesting low wages.
Finally, on Friday, April 17, representatives from the 15 Now movement filed petitions with the state announcing their intention to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot, raising the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019.
Senator Peter Courtney (D-Salem) recently told the Oregonian that he doesn't expect the minimum wage increase to make it through the legislature this session, which ends July 11.
"It doesn't seem like our leadership has the intention of moving forward on the issue, so we intend to take it to the people," says Norton-Kertson. "The latest polls in Oregon show 54 percent favor a $15 minimum wage."
The group has until July 2016 to gather the 88,000-plus valid signatures that will land the initiative on the ballot. Norton-Kertson says they're hoping for support from big labor unions, and he's been "given no indication" that they're unsupportive of the grassroots campaign. At recent events, members of the Service Employees International Union and the Oregon AFL-CIO have been vocal.
Tom Chamberlain, president of Oregon AFL-CIO, tells the Mercury he personally supports the 15 Now ballot initiative, but the union board will decide whether or not to offer an official endorsement.
"What they're doing is great, but I don't think we should let our legislators off so easy," Chamberlain said. "Oregonians elected our legislators to do the right thing, and they need to make sure no one working is living in poverty."
What are the effects from living in poverty? There's been a lot of data gathered and reported explaining why it's important America start paying its lowest-paid workers a living wage—just as there's been much controversy over whether it will help, or hurt, the economy.
Some important numbers from a study published recently by the National Employment Law Project:
• 42 percent of US workers make less than $15 an hour, or less than $31,000 a year.
• Women and people of color make up nearly 55 percent of workers earning less than $15 an hour, though they represent 48 percent of the overall workforce.
• About half of US workers earning less than $15 an hour are over age 35.
• The service industries have the largest number (more than half) of workers making less than $15 per hour.
A study published earlier this month by the University of California, Berkeley, gives those numbers some further context. Researchers determined that poverty-level wages cost US taxpayers $152.8 billion each year in dollars spent to provide public assistance to working families. And 73 percent of Americans receiving some form of government assistance to make ends meet are employed.
Some more bummer info from that study (all adjusted for inflation):
• Hourly wages of the average American worker were just 5 percent higher in 2013 than they were in 1979.
• Wages of the lowest-paid 10 percent of American workers were 5 percent lower in 2013 than in 1979.
• The entire bottom 70 percent of American workers had either flat or negative adjusted-inflation wage growth from 2003 to 2013.
In real life, these numbers represent the difference between having your phone shut off every month or paying the bill. They mean being able to afford the rent on time or having your paycheck subsidized by public programs. And they're the reason we'll be hearing about a minimum wage hike for some time to come.
"I make $13 an hour and it's not enough, though I feel like I'm paid more than a lot of workers," says Sarah Kowaleski, a seasonal city employee. "I don't feel good getting a paycheck from the city and [Oregon Health Plan coverage] from the state and food stamps from the federal government."