SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Legislature on Monday opened debate about several proposals to boost the minimum wage as high as $15 an hour.
The idea is hugely popular with voters and interest groups on the left, but it's far from clear whether it has sufficient support in the Legislature.
House and Senate committees held three hearings on the minimum wage, including a rare evening session to allow people to weigh in after business hours. But the committees took no formal action.
Oregon currently has the nation's second-highest wage floor at $9.25 an hour, $2 higher than the federal minimum.
The proponents say raising the minimum wage would help low-wage workers escape poverty. They say people who work shouldn't have to rely on government assistance.
"No one who works should live in poverty," Justin Norton-Kertzen, who works with an interest group seeking to raise the minimum wage, told the House Committee on Business and Labor.
Business interests are mounting aggressive opposition, calling the idea a job-killer and warning it would raise prices for consumers and make Oregon less competitive to employers. They say raising the minimum wage would significantly increase their labor costs, in part because workers higher on the wage scale also would expect an increase.
Oregon businesses have competitors around the globe, including in countries with significantly lower labor costs, said John Zielinksi, a farmer who grows pears, apples, peaches and hazelnuts near Salem.
"To retain our employees, we will need to pay wages well above the minimum wage, making pears and apples from Oregon less competitive than fruit from other states and countries," Zielinksi, who is president of the Marion County Farm Bureau, told the Senate Workforce Committee.
Several restaurant owners asked lawmakers to create a tip credit, allowing them to pay tipped workers less than the minimum wage if tips take their total pay above the threshold.
"This would put me out of business and put these people on the unemployment line," said Mike Gardner, owner of a Roseburg company with 80 full- and part-time employees that provides in-home care for seniors and people with disabilities in Douglas County. The payments for in-home care are capped by state and federal regulations, Gardner said.
At least 10 bills have been introduced dealing with the minimum wage. Proposals range from setting the floor at $10.75 to $15 per hour, with effective dates ranging from 2016 through 2018.
Some of the bills would merely lift the statewide pre-emption that prevents local jurisdictions from adopting their own minimum pay laws. The option is a potential compromise if lawmakers can't reach a consensus on where to set the floor or how quickly to phase it in.
In addition to raising the minimum wage, the Legislature also is considering requiring businesses to offer paid sick leave. Business groups said it would be difficult for them to absorb both a paid-leave mandate and a higher minimum wage.
Not all business owners were opposed.
"When people are making more money, they spend more money," said Marci Pelletier, "which means they will be spending more money in our small businesses, which is exactly what we need — more customers."
Pelletier owns Shwop, a membership-based clothing store in Portland.