SALEM — Forty-six people from Malheur County, half of them involved with agriculture, traveled 400 miles across icy roads Jan. 14 to Salem to tell Oregon lawmakers that increasing the state’s minimum wage would devastate Eastern Oregon’s economy.
The group, which wore “Any raise equals lost jobs” stickers on their backs, were heavily outnumbered by supporters of the various proposals to significantly raise the state’s minimum wage, who loudly chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, poverty wages have got to go” as they entered the Capitol building.
After arriving in Salem following an eight-hour bus ride, the Eastern Oregon contingent was told they could not carry their picket signs to counter-demonstrate at a rally held on the Capitol steps in support of a minimum wage increase.
They were told that state police decided there was a high risk of a conflict occurring and were concerned about their safety.
But members of the Republican minority party praised them for making the trip and told them their very presence at the statehouse was a loud message.
Though outnumbered, testimony during a three-hour public hearing on the issue was split between supporters and opponents because committee members gave preference to people who had traveled more than 100 miles.
The group traveled by charter bus and headed back to Ontario after the meeting to complete its 800-mile round trip.
“Coming from 400 miles away and spending (more than a day) getting here and back is unbelievably powerful,” said Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who helped organize the event along with farm industry leaders.
“I can’t tell you how important it was for you to have come here today,” said Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day. “The fight you are making today is the fight that may be the key skirmish in this whole (issue).”
During public testimony, the Malheur County residents told legislators that increasing the state’s minimum wage any amount would result in businesses and jobs moving to Idaho.
They reminded them that Oregon’s minimum wage of $9.25 is already $2 higher than Idaho’s rate of $7.25 and Malheur County borders Idaho.
Owyhee Produce General Manager Shay Myers said that if Oregon increases its minimum wage, it will force his onion packing facility to automate or move to Idaho. Either option kills Oregon jobs, he added.
As an example, he said that increasing Oregon’s minimum wage to $13.50 would increase Owyhee Produce’s overall costs by 10 percent, while the company’s margin is only 8 percent, Myers said.
If it comes down to staying in business, “There’s really only one decision for us to make,” he said. “And if we’re going to stay in business, it’s either automate or move to Idaho.”
Tim Newton, who has worked for Peterson Farms in Nyssa for 26 years, said a lot of businesses would move to the Idaho side if the minimum wage goes up.
“What we’re hearing is that the majority of the onion sheds (in the area) will be moving to the Idaho side because of the difference in the minimum wage,” he said.
Nyssa farmer Paul Skeen and others asked the state to leave Malheur County out of any minimum wage increase because farmers and businesses there compete directly with their Idaho counterparts.
“Carve us out (of any increase) and save our jobs,” he said. “You’re going to ruin us if you don’t.”
The Malheur County contingent included several small business owners, who said that if agriculture suffers because of a minimum wage increase, they will suffer also.
If the minimum wage increases, “our onion shippers will move to Idaho,” said John Kirby, a hardware business owner. “It’s not a threat, it’s a promise; they will move to Idaho.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown defended her minimum wage proposal, which she released while the Eastern Oregon group was en route.
It would raise the minimum wage outside the Portland area by $1 in 2017 and gradually increase it to $13.50 by 2022. The Portland area minimum wage would be set at 15 percent above the statewide rate and would increase to $15.52 by 2022.
Phasing in the increase over several years will provide “a glide path for Oregon businesses to plan and prepare for the increase,” said Brown, who added that a single parent in Oregon would have to work 72 hours a week or make $16.61 an hour to afford the state’s average monthly cost of $864 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Brown said she felt her proposal would stop the need for the various, stiffer minimum wage ballot initiatives that have been proposed.
“We are concerned about the number of families that struggle to make ends meet,” she said. “We felt this was middle ground.”
Members of the “Oregonians for 15” group that is pushing for a statewide $15 minimum wage told lawmakers that if they don’t pass a proposal this year that raises the state’s minimum wage to $15 within three years, a ballot initiative is guaranteed.
“We’re not here to debate or negotiate,” said Jamie Cartridge, who added that legislators have two options: “$15 or the ballot.”