Now that the campaign over a ballot initiative that would increase Portland’s minimum wage to $15 per hour has kicked into high gear, the rhetoric from both sides is sure to heat up. They’ll exchange statistics, for sure, though they will be offered along with heavy doses of hyperbole. So, before we become too entrenched in ideological exchange, I wanted to explain why my company has enacted a $15 per hour entry wage.
Until our most recent hire, our workforce was only three partners and a number of contractors strong. When we posted openings for three-month internships earlier this year, we offered $15 per hour as a starting wage. We did so because community stewardship is an important part of our company culture. We thought it important to take care of employees while helping to elevate the local compensation standard. We expect loyalty and hard work from those who work for us, and not only do we believe we should pay them fairly, we think that their pay should make these things possible.
It was not long ago that the partners in our company worked lower-wage jobs. Because of those lower wages, we typically worked for two or three employers at a time. We recognize it is difficult to commit to a job and work hard when one’s time and attention are divided in this way.
In a broader sense, we believe it’s a moral imperative to provide a living wage, and we believe we should pay creative Portlanders enough money to live in a city that feels increasingly unaffordable.
It seems as if many in middle management or ownership positions don’t consider what they would gain in productivity in return for compensating their employees at a high wage. When I worked for the minimum wage or close to it, I remember friends and co-workers providing all sorts of rationalizations for underperforming and sometimes outright stealing from their employers. There is an incongruity between an employer giving very little but expecting a lot in return, and some employees tend to close that gap by stealing or giving their very least.
As owners of a company, there were urges we had to resist when making the decision to pay $15 per hour. Most compelling is the urge to say, “I didn’t make much when I started out, so you shouldn’t either! It’s good for your work ethic!”
It’s true that my partners and I didn’t make much when we were younger, but it’s also the reason we’re starting a company in our mid-30s instead of in our mid-20s. It took us each more than a decade and a half to become stable enough to contribute to the economy by way of entrepreneurship. How can you focus on starting a business when your labor and creative capacity are tied up in two or three low-wage jobs at any given time?
We often celebrate the “job creators” of today without thinking about how we are stifling the growth and freedom of the job creators of tomorrow, and so we think a lot about our commitment to not passing on the forms of exploitation we underwent.
Another temptation to resist is the line of thought that paying too much for labor gets in the way of faster growth for our company. With the money, the thinking goes, we could buy more and better equipment faster. And frankly, we could pay ourselves more than we are. But at the end of the day, the companies we look to for inspiration in the state and in our industry are ones that create sustainable growth by doing so carefully and intentionally. We provide a competitive edge in our field through our knowledge and customer service, which are made possible by paying a comfortable wage.
We hired one of our two interns for a staff position, and the second will continue to work with us as a contractor in a number of productions. Both brought a great deal to the company by way of their talent, drive and commitment. Both, when asked in initial interviews what drew them to the position, expressed an appreciation for a competitive starting wage.
I hope these concepts and considerations aren’t lost in the exchange about whether a $15 per hour minimum wage in Portland is going to “hurt our progress.” My company is still very small, but we plan on growing. As we do, we intend to remind ourselves that stifling pay isn’t the only way to achieve productivity. Instead, investment in quality and commitment go a long way for employers, employees and the cities and states in which they reside.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of Knack Factory, a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.