Journalists love to about new laws that will go into effect on January 1 because the story can be written in advance, before the holiday vacations kick in. New laws — unlike crimes, protests, or the making of new laws — sit still, just waiting to be implemented. And then there are old laws that get a new shine each year, because they were too complex to do all at once (see Care, Obama) or because they have been designed to be updated annually.
Oregon’s minimum wage increased this week to $9.10 per hour because it’s indexed to inflation. That amount was calculated and announced months ago, but it was barely considered newsworthy until the week when it is taking effect. When Oregon passed Ballot Measure 25 in 2002, it was considered a progressive milestone.
Now it’s an emblem of yesterday’s news.
Since then, and especially in the past year, minimum wage hikes have been the legislative lapel pins of liberal jurisdictions across the country. But another factor has also kicked in that Oregonians didn’t foresee in 2002.
While the national minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25, activists have learned to cherry pick mandatory wage hikes, which have not yet affected those who pick cherries. The movement often is bypassing states and targeting cities. San Francisco, San Jose, Washington, D.C. and Albuquerque, New Mexico are raising their minimum wages to double digits. Sea-Tec, which is barely even a township, is seeking to lead the nation with a $15 per hour minimum.
None of this is happening in Oregon, because it can’t.
Oregon’s 2002 ballot measure forbids it. As darling as that baby was to many of us, we didn’t notice the bathwater of local control. Oregon cities and counties lost their right to set their minimum wage higher than their neighbors when voters passed Measure 25.
Eugene has been aggressively promoting its own economic development for most of the past decade. The first order of business was to fill the holes and brighten the blight that had become downtown. The second priority was to increase the employment base, which is well underway. The focus next will turn to raising the average wage in Eugene, which has been lower than the state average for decades.
Raising the mandatory minimum wage above the state’s won’t be allowed. Attracting more CEOs to bring their corporate headquarters to Eugene won’t be easy. And building the strong middle for our local economy won’t be quick.
Here’s where you can throw up your hands, as if in surrender or in prayer, and let it go.
Or we can do something completely new. Instead of increasing the mandatory minimum wage, how about raising the voluntary minimum wage? Here’s how it could work.
The Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce or some other local non-profit organization devoted to economic development could offer all local employers a program that promotes their decision to treat their employees better than the required minimum. Any amount over the minimum would qualify a company to participate.
If a coffee kiosk’s lowest paid worker gets paid $12 per hour, will customers gladly pay an extra 20 cents for their espresso? I think we know the answer to that question. You might even begin to see coffee counters without tip jars. Perish the thought!
Customers will begin to ask how well lowest paid workers are compensated. Signs available only from the agency running the program will tell them, including a phone number to call if they know the posted number is untrue. The agency also would publish a directory of all participating businesses.
After that, the power shifts to the customers. They might frequent only participating businesses. They could change their shopping and buying habits to reward those places that pay their workers better. Shop owners will be competing for the best workers and the best customers in a way that furthers the economic goals of the city, without any governmental mandate necessary.
Eugene can’t prove its liberal bona fides by declaring its workers are more deserving than those doing the same work in neighboring towns, but it can do something better.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.