BANGOR, Maine — As a teenager going to school and working a low-wage job, Tyler Williams was responsible for keeping the heat on in his mother’s home through the winter months, he said.
“I often failed in that endeavor,” Williams, now 20, of Bangor said Thursday at a press conference to highlight the need for a statewide increase in the minimum wage sponsored by the Maine People’s Alliance.
Williams, who works at a big-box retailer, said he has had to work since he was 15 to help support his mother, whose only income is her disability check.
The Maine People’s Alliance used a national report Thursday to illustrate the need for a living wage as part of its effort to put a referendum on the ballot next year to raise the minimum wage statewide from $7.50 to $12 per hour by 2020.
The report, prepared by the Alliance for a Just Society, a national network of 15 racial, social and economic justice organizations based in Washington, D.C, estimated that a living wage in Maine is $15.77 per hour for a single person with no dependents. The living wage for a single adult with two children was estimated to be $29.08 per hour.
Williams said Thursday that he had hoped to become a neurologist but was forced to quit college because he could not support himself.
“This report only adds further proof that Maine families are struggling to make ends meet on jobs that pay poverty wages,” he said. “Maine needs jobs that pay a living wage, and we can’t wait any longer.”
The Maine People’s Alliance, along with the AFL-CIO, has gathered 90,000 signatures it will submit next month so the issue will be on the ballot in November, Sam Portera of the Maine People’s Alliance told reporters Thursday.
The press conference was held at Northeast Reprographics on Central Street. The company is one of 250 small businesses that support raising the minimum wage statewide, he said.
The report, titled “Patchwork of Paychecks,” estimated that a minimum wage earner in Maine would need to work 84.1 hours per week to earn a living wage.
It also concluded that there are 7,770 living-wage jobs in the state and that for every position that pays at least $15 per hour there are nine applicants. For a single mother with two children, that number rises to 28 job seekers for every living-wage job opening.
Bangor City Councilor Sarah Nichols, who supported a successful effort to raise the minimum wage incrementally in Bangor to $9.75 by 2019, which passed 7-2 on Monday, said at the press conference Thursday that in her campaign for City Council this summer and fall she met many residents struggling to make ends meet.
“After knocking on over 1,100 doors during my run for City Council, I learned firsthand that many residents in this city are making the choice between food, shelter and health care,” she said. “They are working hard just to get ahead but can’t because of the stagnated wages in the state of Maine.
“I am pleased that we as a council were able to come to a compromise and start to take a step in the right direction to increase the purchasing power of workers in the city of Bangor,” Nichols continued. “Now, the best way for us to help all the people of Maine get ahead is to raise the minimum wage, and that’s why I support the statewide minimum wage referendum.”
In addition to raising the minimum wage, the report recommended a series of policy changes, including stronger workplace protections for part-time workers and investing in strong programs that provide a roadmap out of poverty.
Kimberly Hammill, 36, of Levant said at the press conference that she and her family benefited from assistance programs such as Women, Infants and Children, a government program that provides nutrition to pregnant women, infants and children who are affected by low incomes.
“I like to consider that I am an example of the American dream,” Hammill, who is now a social worker, said. “I have a teenage daughter. I volunteer in my community. I’m a homeowner and a taxpayer. But it wasn’t easy getting to this point.
“Public assistance programs like these helped me save what little money I earned in my low-wage jobs to be able to finish school,” she said. “I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and soon my daughter will also be going to school. Without these programs I don’t know if I ever would have escaped the cycle of poverty. I certainly don’t believe a low-wage job alone would have been able to make the difference.”
The national report also listed monthly family budgets for five different households and estimated the amount needed for a living wage in each state. That hourly rate in Maine ranged from $15.77 for a single adult with no children to $22.65 for a single adult with a school-aged child to $29.05 for a single adult with a toddler needing child care.
A Maine household with two adults, one of whom worked, and two children, a toddler and a school-aged child, would need $30.43 per hour to earn a living wage, the report said. If both adults worked, the living wage needed would drop to $19.54 per hour per worker.
The report estimated monthly family budgets to meet the basic needs for the five households based on gross incomes. Expenses included food, housing and utilities, transportation, health care, household, clothing and personal items, child care, savings and state and federal income taxes.
To meet those needs, a single worker’s annual gross income in Maine would have to be more than $32,795. A single adult worker with a school-aged child would need to earn about $47,109 per year to meet expenses and pay taxes, and one adult with two children, one a toddler and one in school, would need to earn more than $60,476.
As for families with two heads of households and two children, the family with one adult working would need a gross annual income of about $63,288 per year, and each adult in a family where both worked would need to earn more than $40,641 per year.
Earlier this week, some business leaders expressed concern about Bangor’s decision to not wait for the statewide vote.
“The chamber’s position has been that we believe the minimum wage should be set at the federal or state level, rather than at municipal levels,” Renee Kelly, chairwoman of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee, said in a statement Tuesday. “We want to create a level playing field for our member businesses who compete with businesses statewide and beyond.”
Bangor Daily News writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report.