The conversation around a $15 minimum wage isn't dead, Portland. It's probably about to notch a victory.
Pending union members' approval, every Multnomah County employee will make at least $15 an hour by the summer of 2016. That's thanks to a tentative agreement that 2,600-member AFSCME Local 88—the county's largest employee union—inked with management yesterday.
The agreement will need to be approved by a majority of voting members beginning next week.
"We are recommending a yes vote," says Local 88 President Deirdre Mahoney-Clark. "We got what we asked for."
The wage hike may be more symbolic than transformative—Mahoney-Clark estimates roughly 160 union members currently make less than $15 an hour, with $11.99 being the current base hourly pay. And, as we reported last month, the proposed increase would be phased in over the course of three years—beginning with a retroactive wage hike starting July 2014, where base pay will be $13 an hour, and a dollar increase each year until July 2016. Some union members had complained the full increase should come into effect immediately.
"The County already pays most of its workers over $15," one Multnomah County Library page wrote to the Mercury. "It can pay $15 NOW."
Oregon's minimum wage is set at $9.10, which is fairly generous compared to many parts of the country but far less than activists throughout the nation have argued ought to be paid to help combat wage inequality.
Earlier this year, would-be city commissioner Nick Caleb's candidacy helped spark a discussion about raising Portland's minimum wage to $15. That discussion got a good deal of momentum from Seattle, which is implementing its own $15 minimum.
The city's currently prohibited from such a unilateral hike under state law, but Caleb's opponent, City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, vowed to look into changing that via lobbying efforts. As the 2015 legislative session gets closer, we've yet to hear much from Saltzman on the topic, though he's sent staffers to meet with wage advocates in recent weeks.
City contract employees have also begun to agitate for wage increases.
Multnomah County's not the first public body to (tentatively) sign on to a $15 minimum recently. Last week, another AFSCME branch announced an agreement with Home Forward, the agency that oversees public housing in the county, to lift the wages of 33 workers.
The combined agreements involve less than 200 workers, but they may become fodder for advocates—some proof the sky doesn't fall when wages rise. We've asked for an estimate of what the increases would cost Multnomah County.
Update, 3:15: County spokesman Dave Austin got back to us about cost. He says the phased-in wage increase will cost $70,000 this year (fiscal year 2014-2015), $115,000 next year, and top out at $190,000 once the full $15 an hour is reached. There are roughly 151 effected employees, Austin says.
He also sent along a statement from County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who says, in part: "We hope the actions we took with this historic agreement will be a model for how we treat working families."
If the deal is approved, the wage hike would affect county staffers like road workers and office assistants, Mahoney-Clark says. But it's library pages—roughly 96 percent of those affected—who'll see the most change. As part of negotiations, the union agreed to eliminate the "page" job entirely, and replace it with a new position that takes on more responsibility—sort of a hybrid of traditional page duties and the work library desk clerks carry out.
That's causing some heartburn.
"Change is frightening, and if you're a page today and you hear that in three years your job classification is going away, what does that mean?" Mahoney-Clark says. The union and county management plans to form a committee to work on a smooth transition if the contract is ratified.