Could Seattle's $15 minimum wage come to Portland?

When Seattle's City Council deemed that the city raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, it sent a message throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In Portland, business leaders wondered whether the pay rate would soon appear on its own City Council's docket. A missive sent out out this afternoon by the Bullivant Houser Bailey PC law firm points out that Oregon municipalities don't have the authority to set their own minimum wages.

However, even if, say, Portland attempted to gather momentum to gain that authority, an attorney who's tracked pay issues says the city's economics wouldn't help the efforts any. Nonetheless, Victor Kisch, of Stoel Rives LLP, noted that Portland recently added an inventive sick-leave ordinance, putting a dramatic Seattle-like minimum wage increase, certainly, within the realm of possibility.

The Seattle vote gave the city the highest minimum wage rate among major cities. The new wage will appear in steps, as small businesses will get more time than larger ones to comply with the rules.

Kisch, a Stoel Rives partner, represents businesses on the employment law front. His clients include Costco, which pays its workers more than $21 on average. Its workers also start out at a couple dollars more per hour than Washington's current $9.32 minimum wage. Oregon's current minimum wage is $9.10 an hour.

We caught up with him for an email interview on the topic (questions in bold).

What’s the possible effect the Seattle decision could have on Portland?

Like it or not, Seattle is our sister city. When it makes a change of this magnitude, it puts pressure on Portland to do the same thing. An example is the Seattle paid sick-leave ordinance — and Portland followed soon thereafter.

Could Portland adopt the same policy?

Maybe, but Portland is not in the same space economically as Seattle or the larger cities considering this increase. I think an increase is likely, but probably not $15 an hour.

What are some of the pitfalls to doing this?

Be careful for what you wish for. A big increase in the minimum wage could also mean:

  •     Higher prices, particularly in retail and fast food.
  •     Less hiring as smaller businesses try to control labor costs.
  •     More under the table wages paid (cash).
  •     It’s supposed to grow the middle class, but that’s far from clear.

You've talked about a “phased-in approach” to higher wages. Tell us a little bit about that.

Phase-in is a good thing. It gives business the opportunity to plan and better control costs. It’s the fair approach.

It sounds like you’re in the camp that higher pay in general is inevitable.

There’s a great deal of upward pressure on wages. It comes in a variety of ways: collective bargaining, competition, jobs in low supply (engineers), performance of the individual or the employer. Raising the minimum wage is another change, which makes wage increase inevitable.

The Portland Business Journal is a KATU.com news partner.

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