$15 Now! Activists picket for a higher minimum wage in Northeast Portland on March 14.
  • Dirk VanderHart
  • $15 Now! Activists picket for a higher minimum wage in Northeast Portland on March 14.

Multnomah County, relatively flush with cash for the time being, has cemented itself as a leader in the Portland's ongoing discussions around a $15 minimum wage.

Not only did county commissioners vote this morning to approve a new contract that brings around 150 unionized employees up to that target by 2016, but County Chair Deborah Kafoury immediately took the voluntary step of bringing hundreds of non-unionized temporary and "on-call" workers into the deal as well. That executive decision means interns are the only county employees who won't be guaranteed $15 an hour two years from now.

"I just want to announce that Multnomah County, at the suggestion of AFSCME and Local 88, have decided to enact the same minimum wage increase to employees who are not members of Local 88," Kafoury said to brief applause. "I think we are the first county and the largest public employer in Oregon to adopt a $15 an hour minimum."

According to figures supplied by the county, Kafoury's decision will affect almost 400 employees, most of whom make roughly $12 an hour working during elections or temporarily as library pages. They'll get the same essential deal that's hammered out in the newly approved three-year contract with the county's largest employee union, the 2,600-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 88.

That deal: A phased-in wage, with the county's minimum wage brought to $13 as of January, $14 beginning in July, and $15 in July 2016. The county estimates the increases will cost: $19,905 for the first half of 2015; $85,832 for the year the wage is at $14; and $198,285 for the first year of $15 (a presidential election year heavy on seasonal elections employees).

Kafoury's decision comes as the county enjoys some of its most stable funding in years. That's largely thanks to the 2012 passage of a property tax hike that sends millions to the Multnomah County Public Library system. The Oregonian reported this morning that the county anticipates $7.7 million in ongoing extra revenue, and a one-time bump of almost $36 million.

It's also further momentum for a minimum wage discussion that began in Portland earlier this year, well after $15 wage campaigns began in other parts of the country (and found fertile ground in Seattle).

The group 15 Now Oregon has been working this year to get unions and other groups to sign on to a statewide $15 minimum wage. It most recently announced the participation of the Oregon AFL-CIO, which represents more than 100,000 workers. The City of Portland is also pushing a minimum wage increase as part of its legislative agenda. City leaders are pre-empted by state law from raising the minimum wage citywide. They've also been reticent to assign any hard number to what an acceptable minimum wage is.

The push for $15 began in New York City two years ago. It was a banner fast food staffers and other low-wage workers in that costly metropolis organized under, laying bare how difficult it is to live on the current minimum wage. Proponents of the push for $15 point out the minimum wage hasn't kept pace with inflation. Critics—even those who allow that the state's minimum wage should be higher than its current $9.10—often say $15 is too high even for Portland, let alone the rest of the state. They complain a dramatic wage hike would kill business. We covered all this in detail earlier this year.