COMMISSIONER AMANDA FRITZ worries she's running the Walmart of city government.
Portland Parks and Recreation, one of two city bureaus under Fritz's control, is fresh off a big win after voters renewed a crucial funding stream for city parks in November. And after the bureau was forced to cut and cut again in recent lean years, Fritz, in the last budget, was able to add full-time employees.
But the bureau also presents a challenge that officials expect will come to the foreground in coming months. Parks gets along by employing hundreds upon hundreds of low-paid seasonal workers whose earning potential is limited to 1,400 hours of city work per year. As such, parks is Portland's largest impediment to joining a growing national movement to pay workers at least $15 an hour.
The numbers are larger than you might expect. As of early December, 1,841 workers—more than one-sixth of all city employees—were paid less than $15, according to data the Mercury obtained in a public records request. Nearly 60 percent of that group earned less than $11 an hour. And those workers—nearly all of them seasonal—overwhelmingly work for the parks bureau.
"Parks has been patched together," Fritz says. "We've been doing that with part-time workers."
The situation reflects a disconnect in city hall.
As part of its yearly wish list to lawmakers in Salem, Portland City Council recently signaled it would "support statewide efforts to raise Oregon's minimum wage." (A vote on that wish list is scheduled for Thursday, January 8.) The city is pre-empted by state law from setting a citywide minimum wage, and thus largely powerless to better the pay of Portland's low-wage workers. It can raise wages for its own workers.
But while it appears feasible that city council will bump hourly wages above $15 for about 100 contract workers this spring, there's no sign anything's coming for actual city employees. Some commissioners aren't even sold that $15 an hour is appropriate.
And Fritz, the park bureau's overseer, outright opposes a minimum wage hike for her workers—the workers who'd be most affected by an increase—saying she'd much rather put money toward getting part-time and seasonal workers full-time jobs.
"There's probably hundreds of jobs that should be full-time jobs that currently are not," Fritz says, "and that keeps me awake at night."
The $15 movement's found momentum in Oregon. Last month, Multnomah County became the state's largest public employer to sign on to a $15 minimum wage, agreeing to pay all its workers (except interns) that amount by next year. That deal began as a labor contract that would have affected about 150 employees, but County Chair Deborah Kafoury voluntarily extended it to hundreds more temporary staffers. Nearly 400 workers will get raises, in all.
The county wasn't alone. Home Forward, the agency that oversees public housing in Multnomah County, recently signed a labor deal to pay 33 workers $15 an hour. And the push will reach Salem this year. State Senator Chip Shields (D-Portland) has sponsored legislation that would create a statewide $15 minimum wage (the effort is considered a long shot, but there are other, more modest bills that could win approval).
The $15 goal is often seen as arbitrary. It began as a rallying cry for fast-food workers in New York—specifically tied to the outsized expenses of that city. The movement has since spread nationwide, a symbol of frustration with ever-growing wage inequality. Campaigners won unlikely policy changes in places like Seattle and its suburb SeaTac, and the movement took root in Portland last year, when upstart city council candidate Nick Caleb made it a centerpiece of his campaign.
"It's not just a number," says Jamie Partridge, who's pushed for a $15 wage with the group Portland Jobs with Justice. "It's a movement that's sparked the imagination of low-wage workers. Every opportunity that we have for a victory at $15 has boosted the movement."
Certain changes appear imminent. Jobs with Justice is working with the group 15 Now Portland to extend a $15 wage to a relatively small number of workers who contract with the city—parking attendants, security officers, janitors. They'll get a hearing on that before city council in February, spurred by Dan Saltzman, the commissioner whom Caleb challenged.
The raise would reach more than 100 workers, Partridge says. The city estimates it would cost $676,000 a year. And it looks like an easy sell. Commissioners say it's an achievable start. But it also does nothing for the city's own employees, more than 10 percent of whom make less than $11 an hour.
"We have one opportunity in front of us that we can afford," says Commissioner Nick Fish, who will support the change in upcoming budget discussions. "Let's do that, then let's commit to another solution for other workers."
The central sticking point of raising city employees' wages, obviously, is the cost. A hike to $15 isn't as simple as lifting all low-wage workers up to that threshold, because then people who'd been earning $9.25 an hour would be paid the exact same as a more skilled worker who'd been making $12.90 an hour.
Instead, it would be necessary to completely realign the wage scale, meaning far more than 1,841 city employees would be in for raises. No one knows for certain what this so-called "salary compression" would cost. But in May the parks bureau took a stab at finding that figure.
In an email to Fritz, the bureau's finance manager, Jeff Shaffer, estimated it would cost more than $2.7 million to convert parks employees up to $15 an hour. When the Mercury asked about that estimate, Shaffer made clear it was "very ballpark." He further estimated the actual figure would be closer to $4 million once salary compression, taxes, and employee benefits were brought into the picture.
Shaffer's baseline figures are different from those provided by the Portland Bureau of Human Resources. He says more than 2,000 employees in the parks bureau make less than $15, while human resources says just 1,841 employees citywide fell into that category as of December 3. That's probably due to the big seasonal shifts in employees, city staffers say.
Either way, if Shaffer's on target, the city theoretically has the money to make the change. A recent five-year forecast from the city's budget office found Portland could expect $4.6 million in new, ongoing money. Don't expect it to go to raises in a single bureau, though—particularly when that bureau's commissioner opposes such raises.
While all commissioners the Mercury contacted said they'd love to help low-paid city employees, they're not offering many specifics. And no one's locked on $15 as an acceptable starting point.
"One question I need to ask: Are there some kinds of jobs paying under $15 that for the most part aren't anyone's primary source of income to live on, and other jobs that people really are trying to live on?" says Commissioner Steve Novick. "If there is such a distinction, I would focus first on trying to raise the wage in the second category."
Brendan Finn, Saltzman's chief of staff, says the commissioner hopes the proposed raises for contract employees can bring on broader discussions. Mayor Charlie Hales' office, meanwhile, didn't offer much insight into his thinking.
"The mayor's been talking to his elected cohorts on this topic," said spokesperson Dana Haynes. "No consensus yet on how to move forward, but the talks are continuing. Expect this to be a topic of great debate in the coming budget season."
Maybe the most resolute, then, is Fritz, who says to expect a fight from her if a minimum wage raise comes to the table. She'll be more focused, instead, on bringing nine newly full-time ranger positions to the parks bureau. She also hopes to get some seasonal maintenance workers full-time jobs.
"It's obviously very politically correct—how could anybody disagree with giving people $15 an hour?" Fritz asks. "But with a finite amount of money, I would rather give people full-time jobs with benefits."