Mayor Charlie Hales' office forecast a "great debate" over living wages in city hall this year, after the Mercury's Dirk VanderHart last month examined the likely sizable cost of jumping aboard the growing national movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The mayor's people had a good reason to say so: Hales, during his State of the City speech, surprised the room by announcing plans to bump wages for the city's full-time and contract workers up to $15—a modest, $1 million step on the way to eventually extending that raise to the city's hundreds of seasonal workers, too.

And already, tensions and questions over that promise are bubbling up among the Portland City Council. Emails obtained by the Mercury this morning make clear Hales' plan, if it makes into this year's coming budget, won't be welcomed with unanimous support.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, as Dirk has reported, remains convinced the city should help part-time workers into full-time jobs first. In email to the mayor sent late Sunday, she asked for updates on several cost points, wondered about the timing of an upcoming public hearing on living wages February 18, and complained she hadn't been briefed about such a major proposal in advance.

"It was disappointing that this initiative had not been discussed with me prior to the announcement," Fritz wrote.

Dear colleagues,

I was interested to hear in the State of the City address that the proposal to be considered by Council on February 18 is to raise the wages of all full-time and contracted City workers to $15 per hour. It was disappointing that this initiative had not been discussed with me prior to the announcement.

Andrew [Scott, city budget office (CBO) director,] and Anna [Kanwit, human resources director], please tell me:

How many workers would this proposal affect, and which bureaus/companies do they work for?

How much would it cost?

What would be the additional fiscal impact/effect on raising the wages of City staff who currently make $15 per hour or more due to having higher levels of workload/responsibility, and the commensurate need to pay more to those workers If lower-paid employee/contractor wages are raised?

Parks and CBO staff, please tell me how much it would cost ongoing for Parks employees who have worked at least 1200 hours for at least two years, to pay at least $15 per hour in their third and subsequent years even if we did not also pay for benefits such as retirement.

I support improving wages for the lowest-income workers in Portland. Currently, the Council employs many workers in Parks who do not make $15 per hour, and do not have full-time jobs with benefits. Many of our Parks workers are employed for a maximum of 1200 hours per year. They claim Food Stamps to make ends meet. Many of these seasonal employees are people of color and/or immigrants. If we are truly committed to equity, we should seek to provide more support for the City workers who are most disadvantaged by our current pay structure. It seems likely to me that these most impacted workers are the “serial-seasonal/ongoing-part-time workers.

Thanks in advance to CBO, HR and PPR for providing data to inform the Council on this crucial issue.


In his own tartly polite reply back to Fritz, Hales acknowledged those concerns and said he doesn't yet have a "specific timetable" for putting his plan into place, which he sees as an case of making like Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

Hales directly addressed the February 18 hearing, which has been planned by Commissioner Dan Saltzman and isn't meant as a chance to vote on a policy proposal. Saltzman embraced a higher minimum wage, while hedging on the overall amount, after one of his re-election rivals, Nick Caleb (whom we endorsed), made it a centerpiece campaign issue last year.


As always, I appreciate you digging into the details. Your focus on doing right by our city employees is great.

I wanted to clarify that there was no specific timetable for my proposal in the speech. I haven’t drafted an ordinance, either. I understand advocates are coming in to speak to us on Feb. 18, but not at my behest.

Together, we have had a lot of discussion over the past year about a living wage in the City of Portland. That will continue. When I spoke with Anna, Andrew and others, it was clear that we need to further investigate the issue of conversion of seasonal-to-fulltime employees, in terms of which ones, what it costs, and when.

I believe the best place to start is with our full-time workers and contractors. I also believe that we should not stop there. Maybe the best summary of our strategy should be FDR’s dictum: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Thank you for taking up this important issue,


His office, when I asked for an estimate after his speech, said it might cost $1 million a year to increase pay for full-time and contract city workers. Dirk's story, citing estimates from advocates, said paying contract workers—about 100 of them—could cost $676,000 a year. Dirk also found that 99 percent of city employees earning less than $15 an hour are part-time or seasonal—and that 97 percent of the city's low-wage workers also are in parks, which Fritz oversees.

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."

Advocates sent out a mixed statement cheering Hales' announcement, but also reserving some disappointment that part-time workers won't apparently be included. Hales' plan reflects some other political differences in city hall.

While Fritz is steadfastly in favor of converting seasonal jobs into full-time posts with benefits, other city commissioners seem willing to consider following Hales—so long as the city takes measured steps and doesn't go shooting for the moon all at once. Commissioner Nick Fish has said he supports the contract workers' pay bump, for example—but has other reservations about cost.

And doing more really would amount to millions.

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