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A timely boost for our state’s lowest-paid workers

Commentary
June 30, 2020By Audrey Mechling

It’s luck, but we’ll take it. More than four years ago, the Oregon legislature scheduled a minimum wage increase to take effect this July 1, part of a series of yearly raises to the state’s wage floor. This year, the wage increase is arriving in time to help Oregon’s lowest-paid workers — disproportionately workers of color — cope with increased pressures brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

The minimum wage is going up by 75 cents in the Portland metro area and other urban ("standard") counties, and by 50 cents in non-urban counties (Baker, Coos, Crook, Curry, Douglas, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, and Wheeler). That means the minimum wage will increase to $13.25 in the Portland metro area, $12 in standard counties, and $11.50 in non-urban counties starting July 1. For a full-time worker, that is an additional $1,040 to $1,560 in income over a year.

Before the coronavirus hit, minimum wage workers in Oregon were already struggling to make ends meet. Housing is unaffordable for minimum wage workers in most of the state, making it difficult to afford rent while also paying for necessities like food, transportation, and medical care.

The minimum wage workforce is disproportionately made up of people of color. Though people of color account for about 25 percent of Oregon’s population, they make up 37 percent of minimum wage earners. That discrepancy is even more pronounced for Hispanic or Latino Oregonians, whose representation in the minimum wage workforce is 90 percent higher than their share of the Oregon population, and for African Americans, whose representation in the minimum wage workforce is a third higher than their share of the Oregon population.

Not only have low-wage workers borne the brunt of job losses triggered by the coronavirus crisis, those who have managed to hang on to their jobs or return to work confront new challenges. There is some indication that workers are seeing their hours cut, reducing their take-home pay. Additionally, low-wage workers must contend with the increased cost of food. Since the beginning of the coronavirus public health emergency, food prices have soared. For Oregon’s lowest-paid workers, a higher minimum wage helps ease some of the pressure.

A higher minimum wage can also pay off for employers. New research shows that raising the minimum wage boosts worker productivity. “With a more productive work force,” one economist recently explained, “more economic value is being created and there is more money to go around, so a higher paycheck for one person does not imply another person’s loss.” So ultimately, employers can maintain their profit level despite the increased cost of labor.

Much work remains to ensure that all Oregon workers can live in dignity, being able to meet their basic needs and have a real opportunity to thrive. But for now, a bump to the minimum wage will provide our state’s lowest-paid workers a little more money to make it through these difficult times.