Illustration by Shiela Laufer

WELCOME TO THE ERA of $15 an hour, Portland.

As expected, Portland City Council made local history on February 18, voting unanimously to enshrine that nationally famous minimum wage into city policy for all full-time city employees and contract workers.

"Fifteen dollars an hour is being recognized now as the wage floor for all US workers," said Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who wouldn't commit to that amount last year when faced with a political challenger who forced the minimum wage issue. "It's where the climb out of a low-wage reality begins."

The sentiment is more sweeping than the reality. The new policy will affect a little more than a dozen full-time employees, and around 150 janitors, security guards, and parking attendants who contract with the city ["$15...for Some," News, Feb 18]. More than 1,800 non-full-time workers will remain at lower wages.

That's hardly the point, according to city hall staffers. They say the vote was just a start—a good faith, this-is-what-we-can-afford-now sort of statement that will be the first of several changes to come. This being Portland, there's already a new committee in the works to study how to help the hundreds of workers who toil for well under $15 ["Starting at the Bottom," News, Jan 7]. The city's elected leaders say that's a top priority.

"We know there are a lot of workers who won't be affected by this first step," Mayor Charlie Hales told a crowded room at the hearing. "There are more steps we want to take, particularly to deal with our seasonal and part-time workers."

But there was something no one at the meeting, including Hales, bothered to mention: If the mayor is serious about helping out seasonal workers, there's an obvious place to start.

Since 2013, Laborers' Local 483—a union that already represents several groups of parks workers—has been trying to win extra protections and increased wages for hundreds of employees under an existing contract with the city. The union contends about 270 seasonal parks workers, many of them paid low wages, do essentially the same work as full-time union members who not only earn more but also collect benefits.

The only difference? The low-wage workers' positions are classified as "casual." Most are allowed to work only 1,200 hours a year (an average of about 23 hours a week). Because of that, the city insists, those workers aren't subject to the contract. Local 483, in a complaint filed in April 2013, has argued that's an unfair, illegal distinction.

"They're not supposed to be excluded from the contract, because they're doing our members' work," says Erica Askin, the union's business manager. "They can be doing the same work side-by-side with our members, year after year."

It's unclear what the shift would cost, but folding these so-called "recreational support" employees into the union contract would get even more city employees up above $15 an hour. Union representatives—and some of the food-stamp-reliant city employees who'd benefit from such a change—argue this is precisely the sort of "what-we-can-do-now" effort Hales and other leaders are talking about.

Instead, the city is fighting the grievance every step of the way.

JUDITH PULMAN is an example of the type of worker Local 483 is fighting over.

Pulman loves her job at the city's Multnomah Arts Center (MAC), a popular parks-run instructional center in Multnomah Village. She just wishes it didn't make her feel ashamed.

The 31-year-old Montavilla resident has worked for MAC since 2010, helping visitors at the front desk on some shifts, coordinating workshops during others. The job began as side work while she pursued a master's degree. Then it became something aspirational—Pulman figured if she did a good job for long enough, the city would find her a full-time position.

Now, Pulman's position at MAC—one of several she's forced to keep to make a living—has become a source of bitter disappointment.

"It seems like we're not any kind of priority to the city," she says. "It's really shameful, in all honesty, the secret that all these parks workers are getting food stamps and on Medicaid and relying on social services to stay at the city."

Pulman has varying duties at MAC, which pay varying rates. She can work at the front desk and make $12.50 an hour. If she's helping coordinate courses and programs at the center, she makes far more: $17.50. No matter the position, she's still allowed just 1,200 hours a year. Pulman says it's unfair she gets paid two rates for the work, given her tenure with parks. Unionized employees do similar work, she says, and their wages don't shift. Plus, they get benefits.

"My skills and my qualifications don't put me in a different class than those people," she says.

Pulman's far from alone. One of her coworkers, Mari Paulus, has worked at MAC since 1999. She's still paid less than $15 when she works the front desk.

"How do you call someone who's been committed for 15 years a seasonal worker?" Paulus asks.

At the February 18 hearing, city commissioners heard from another MAC worker, Sarah Kowaleski, a five-year parks employee who described being reliant on food stamps and turning to food banks to eat.

"I'm living in poverty," Kowaleski said. "I am counted on by my supervisor, but what I did not count on in my years of service is that I would struggle to feed myself."

SEVERAL THINGS contribute to Kowaleski's situation. First, of course, are the low wages paid to support workers within the parks bureau. As the Mercury's reported, parks accounted for 97 percent of the more than 1,800 city employees making less than $15 an hour—many less than $12. Most of those parks workers are seasonal.

The second is the "casual" designation these employees work under, a classification that denies access to benefits and steeply limits how much they can work.

If Local 483 prevails in its grievance, that hour limit would disappear for staffers doing the work of union members. And the wages, in many cases, would rise. The lowest-paid employees under the union's current contract make $16.71 after just six months of employment. They're paid more than $20 an hour after three years.

But the city has dug in its heels. When the union first filed the grievance in 2013, officials sent a response asking Local 483 to specify exactly which employees were performing the same work as union members, and what that work entailed.

"They basically filed a grievance about a concept," says Jon Uto, a labor relations coordinator with the city. "Typically people tell us who, when, and where, and we can go investigate."

But Uto also acknowledged that casual workers perform some of the same work as unionized employees—tasks as wide-ranging as acting as a receptionist at community centers, answering questions about programs, scheduling classes, and collecting money from the public. The system has operated like this for decades, he says.

For the city, the key factor in whether an employee should fall under the union's contract is the number of hours they work. Since Kowaleski and others work 1,200 hours a year or less—and don't have the formal title of "recreational lead" or "recreational coordinator"—they can be left out.

"For us, that's the clear line," Uto says. "These types of people have been doing the same types of work as [union-represented] employees for years. People have been doing this work since the '70s."

According to the union's contract with the city, though, such overlap between union and non-union employees' work is supposed to be kept to a minimum.

The contract says "support" employees will be assigned to support work "and will not normally be upgraded to classifications covered by the contract except on an incidental basis as required by day-to-day work flow."

The city's also offered another argument against the grievance: that it's unnecessary. Uto and other staffers say the workers in question could vote to be represented by Local 483 and negotiate their own contract with the city. (Not that it would be so simple: The city, for example, tried to squelch an ultimately successful attempt by Portland park rangers to organize with Local 483.)

Uto says some staffers suspect the union is using its grievance over the seasonal workers to circumvent the prescribed route for organizing new workers.

"That's a very different way of doing things," he says—and the city's not even sure it's allowed.

The fight will be decided soon. The parties went before an arbitrator in late January to argue their cases. Both sides are supposed to file detailed summaries of their arguments by early March, with a binding decision expected soon after.

If the union prevails, it would mean an order for the city to stop paying support personnel on the cheap for work that's supposed to go to union members.

"There's no way they can cease and desist because they need these people," says Askin, the union business manager.

That means the ruling could amount to a raise for those workers—forcing leaders to take another step toward what they now say is a top priority: a higher minimum wage. But those leaders aren't talking about the union dispute and its consequences.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees parks and has championed creating more full-time positions in the bureau, said she didn't know enough to comment. And a spokesman for the mayor, who oversees the human resources bureau and labor relations team, said he couldn't talk about the case. Instead, spokesman Dana Haynes repeated the mayor's sunny pledge of persistent, incremental change.

"This decision to increase the minimum wage is a floor, not a ceiling," Haynes said of the new $15 policy. "It was not the mayor's intention to address that in one fell swoop."