Think Out Loud is traveling to cities and towns across the state to hear about the policy issues that matter to Oregonians. How do the decisions of lawmakers in Salem affect our lives? See our full coverage here.
Ashley Bardales has worked minimum wage jobs for 11 years. Mostly in food service, she says, but also customer service and at one point, at a retirement home. She says she's now attending cosmetology school so she can "get out of the minimum wage cycle."
"I've attempted higher education seven times. And I always have to stop," says Ashley, "because I can't work full-time to pay the bills at the same time of taking care of my two kids, at the same time of trying to get an education." Bardales is living with her dad and step-mom to make it all pencil out.
Mariel Mota, the community leadership development coordinator for the Rosewood Initiative, makes far less than minimum wage, since she works under a special AmeriCorp VISTA program. Mota says it's hard to make ends meet, but she's one of the lucky ones — later this year she'll be getting a regular salaried position with the Rosewood Initiative that will put her well above minimum wage.
The Rosewood Initiative, which launched a few years ago, has quickly become a center for community events and a resource for the low-income residents who live in the low-income area of East Portland — from donated bread to employment resources.
Rosewood's community center is in Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson's district. The Portland democrat is co-sponsoring a bill in the Oregon legislature that would raise the minimum wage to $15 dollars an hour.
Vega Pederson says implementing a "living wage" for the state is good for workers, but they are not the only ones who will benefit. "We've seen national research that says there's actually a 95 percent positive impact for increasing the minimum wage to our economy," says Vega Pederson.
But that just doesn't resonate for small business owners like John Zielinski of E.Z. Orchards. His family business grows apples, pears, hazelnuts and peaches. He has 14 employees and they get between minimum wage and $14/hour. He says if the minimum wage suddenly went up, he'd probably have to change his business model.
I don't have the ability to raise prices on the products I sell," Zielinski says. "What we grow is mostly shipped out of our state. We sell our pears to a cannery, and the price is set. I can't say, 'Oh, our minimum wage went up. I need to get more for my pears.' It doesn't work that way.”
If the minimum wage jumped to $15/hour, "we would have to seriously look long term if we would continue to grow pears," Zielinski says. "Maybe we'd grow a less labor intensive crop, such as hazelnuts. One or two men could farm 100 acres of hazelnuts. As opposed to, you know, a dozen men or more to grow a hundred acres of pears."
That kind of interstate commerce is one reason that Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson favors raising the minimum wage nationally. "The fact is that farm workers all across America are some of the lowest paid workers," she says. "There's no reason, in such a labor intensive job, that farm workers shouldn't be able to earn the same minimum wage as every other person that's working."
There are more than a dozen bills in the state legislature this year that would affect the minimum wage in various ways. The session is scheduled to go until early July.