Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

MPA pushes for a minimum wage of $12 an hour in Portland

MPA’s director Amy Halsted speaking to supporters of a higher minimum wage during the referendum launch event last week by city hall.
Courtesy of the Maine People's Alliance
MPA’s director Amy Halsted speaking to supporters of a higher minimum wage during the referendum launch event last week by city hall.

Posted on April 27, 2015 in News
By Francis Flisiuk

Francis Flisiuk | The Free Press

A very important question to anyone who lives and works in Maine may be put on the ballot for 2016: Should the state increase the minimum wage?

The current minimum wage of $7.50 an hour hasn’t changed since 2009 and is absolutely due for an increase, according to Andrew Francis, the deputy communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, an organization representing labor unions.

A team of 32,000 members and volunteers has spearheaded a referendum campaign that hopes to raise the current minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2017. After that initial boost up, the Maine People’s Alliance wants to see the wage increase by $1 a year until 2020 where then the wage would be tied to the cost of living. This statewide citizen’s initiative is currently fundraising and gathering 80,000 signatures which will soon be sent to the secretary of state for approval.

Francis, along with many Mainers, believes that the minimum wage is a poverty wage and should be something a person can comfortably support themselves on; a idea that seems optimistic for the thousands that struggle to pay their bills with a low wage income.

“Each year we release what’s called a job gap report, which basically breaks down what a living wage should in the state and compares it to what jobs actually pay,” said Francis. “A living wage in the state of Maine, according to the report, should be around $15.85.”

After taxes, a full time minimum wage earner would bring home $12,300 in income, a figure members at the Maine People’s Alliance is “just not right.”

According to Francis, raising the minimum wage to even $9 an hour would do a lot of good for our communities and small businesses because it would provide a greater incentive to work and spend, which would pump more money into the local economy. Apart from that, a wage increase would satisfy certain moral obligations, because Francis believes that a lot of Mainers aren’t earning a fair wage for their labor.

“The reality is that a lot of Mainers are working full time and still struggling to pay their bills and rent. Then they have to choose between either putting food on the table, or medicine in their cabinet,” said Francis. “Raising the minimum wage is incredibly popular in Maine right now.”

Last year’s poll from the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center showed that 75 percent of Maine respondents supported raising the minimum wage federally, with 60 percent expressing strong support. Hyper locally, a poll of 203 USM students showed that 190 people don’t think minimum wage is a livable wage and 148 said that they struggle to pay the bills with their current job. 169 said the minimum wage should be raised to at least $8.75, while 49 people said it should be raised to $15 an hour.

Despite the support, there’s still some opposition to the community push for what they consider a “fair wage.” Greg Dugal, the president of the Maine Restaurant Association, said that if the minimum wage has to be raised, it should only be done so on the federal level.

“We’re definitely opposed to the local initiatives,” said Dugal. “The state and the federal government need to come together and discuss the minimum wage issue. Currently that doesn’t seem possible.”

Dugal, along with members of the Republican party, like Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine GOP, believe that the minimum wage was never designed to be something that one can solely live off of.

“It’s exactly what it says it is,” said Dugal. “It’s for someone that is just starting at their job. Maybe a young kid that’s inexperienced, or someone that’s potentially working part time. One person making minimum wage will never support a family.”

Dugal’s method of success towards a person’s financial independence is what he called earning “a combination of wages.”

Anonymous responders to the Free Press survey seemed to agree with the sentiment of: if you want to earn more, work harder.

“Burger flipping was never intended to be anyone’s career path,” wrote one online responder. “It’s called motivation, people are motivated to fight for $15 but not to find a better paying job. They’re too afraid they might have to work or think harder. Better yourself.”

“Get a real job, slackers,” wrote another student.

“I started by working my ass off for free, working hard, and eventually earning everything that I have,” wrote another anonymous responder. “It’s really frustrating to see people complaining about minimum wage. Want more money? Become indispensable.”

Other opponents of the initiatives said that if if the minimum wage goes up to $12 an hour by 2020, it could affect the survival of small businesses like it’s doing now in Seattle.

“It would cause the economy to do a tail spin,” said Justin Tougas, a sophomore economics major. “What we need to do is to find some way to raise the real monetary value of the dollar, not increase pay just to cause unemployment and dollar value deflation.”

Just last week, Joel Baker, the owner of the Mr. Bagel on Forest Ave., wrote a letter to the Portland Phoenix saying that raising his payroll would doom his breakfast eatery.

“We here at Mister Bagel will probably have to close the doors if this new law comes into play. Saddened by today’s world,” wrote Baker.

Yet, according to Francis, 3,000 small businesses support their initiative, and will thrive once people that have more money in their pockets spend more at the local spots.

“A lot of small businesses already are paying well above $7.50 an hour,” said Francis. “And the ones we’ve talked to that actually are paying minimum wage have said that they can’t compete with the Walmarts, Targets and other chain stores. So raising the minimum wage actually puts them at a more even playing field with these big box companies.”

Shawn Chapla, a junior English major and sociology minor said you could raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars right now and the chain places like McDonalds would be financially fine.

“McDonalds and Amatos can afford it,” said Chapla. “They’re not going to leave. I’d like it if they did, but they won’t.”

Students like Chapla and Sarah Victor, an occupational therapy student, believe that minimum wage should be about providing people with an entry level job they can support themselves on, not one that exploits their labor.

“Just because somebody is gaining experience doesn’t mean they have to live in poverty,” said Victor. “The only way I’ve ever been able to cultivate a living wage and not be eligible for food stamps is through my self-employment as a massage therapist.”

Victor said that when she occasionally hires somebody to help out with work around the house, she pays them $15 an hour and that anything less would be unethical.

On top of the Maine People’s Alliance’s race to get the minimum wage question on the state ballot, Mayor Michael Brennan endorsed a separate plan to increase just Portland’s minimum wage to $8.75. Governor Paul LePage is attempting to squash these efforts by endorsing a bill, sponsored by Andre Cushing in the Senate, that would prohibit local municipalities from having this power.

“Of course he [LePage] is, he hates the people, clearly by his policies,” said Victor half-jokingly on the phone.

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