US labor official tells Portland group minimum wage boost would not cause layoffs

PORTLAND, Maine – A top U.S. Department of Labor official told a room full of unemployed or minimum-wage-earning Mainers on Thursday that raising the minimum wage, as President Barack Obama and Maine Democrats propose, would not trigger mass layoffs.

The event – led by Latifa Lyles, acting director of the department’s Women’s Bureau – took place at Florence House, a Portland apartment building for women experiencing homelessness.

Some of those who turned out for the roundtable discussion on the matter were suspicious of the effort to increase the lowest amount employers can legally pay workers, saying that if payroll costs go up on businesses, they may be out of a job altogether.

"I think raising the minimum wage would help me a little bit now," said Tabatha Whalen, one of the roundtable participants. "But I talked to my boss about this, and he said if they raised the minimum wage to $9 per hour, they wouldn’t use as many workers. So, if they raise the minimum wage, would I be laid off?"

Whalen said she is a homeless mother of two who works more than 60 hours each week between two jobs at fast food restaurants and still cannot make ends meet.

Lyles said Obama pledged in January to push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, a move that she said would increase pay for 15 million American workers, by 2015. In Maine, a bill to increase the minimum wage to $9 by 2016 and tie future raises to the Consumer Price Index has been passed in both the House and Senate along partisan lines, with all Republicans in both chambers opposing the legislation, and all but one House Democrat voting in favor.

Richard Coleman, another discussion participant Thursday, shared Whalen’s concerns.

"It would relieve my everyday stress of paying bills, but I’m trying to look at the bigger picture," Coleman said of increasing the minimum wage. "I don’t want to be [in my current job] forever. I want to own my own business and employ other people. I don’t think [minimum wage] should be too high, but it shouldn’t stay where it is, either. There has to be a balance."

Lyles said allegations by opponents of minimum wage increases are "scare tactics," and told attendees, "We need to make sure we don’t let that fear stand in the way of doing the right thing."

Jackie Cooke, from the department’s Women’s Bureau Boston office, said fears that Maine’s restaurant industry workforce would be reduced to offset additional payroll costs created by the last minimum wage increase in 2009 did not play out.

"There’s a lot of fear in what giving people just a little bit more to make ends meet would do," Lyles told the BDN after Thursday’s group discussion. "This would be good for the economy, it would be good for jobs. There wouldn’t be huge swaths of unemployments nationwide."

One participant, Rachel, who declined to give her last name, said she works three jobs working for nonprofit organizations, and that after a year and a half in her field, is making $8.75 per hour.

"Even raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour would help someone like me, who is paying back student loans," she told Lyles.

"We can’t be intimidated," Lyles told the attendees. "We can’t go back."

Maine, where the minimum wage has been $7.50 an hour since 2009, is one of 19 states with a minimum wage currently above the national level of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In New England, only New Hampshire, which uses the federal minimum wage, has a lower minimum wage than Maine. Vermont’s minimum wage, $8.60 an hour, is the highest in the region and is indexed to inflation.