Of the Baker City Herald

Rikki Mezo serves up pizza and pasta at Baker City's Pizza Hut store and earns the state's minimum wage, $6.50 per hour.

She says she can make do without the 40 cent per hour raise offered by Ballot Measure 25 if it means that her employer won't have to cut back employee hours to cover the company's higher costs.

andquot;Pizza Hut really can't afford (the raise) right now,andquot; she said. andquot;This is a small town, and sometimes business is slow. It'll mean people are cut, or hours are cut.andquot;

Her boss, manager Willy Martin, says a fall ballot measure to raise the minimum wage will be especially tough on small businesses with thin profit margins. He'll work extra hours if he has to, he says, to help keep his store's labor costs in line.

On the other hand, there's Harumi Springer, owner of Sho-Gun Video, which employs six part-time workers. Some make the minimum, others slightly higher.

If voters elect to hike the state's minimum wage Nov. 5 from $6.50 per hour to $6.90, Springer's labor costs will also go up but, she says, it'll add discretionary income to the wallets and purses of many of her customers.

The end result could be a good thing for her business, she says.

andquot;As an employer, I pay payroll and social security taxes. If they go up, that's difficult,andquot; she said. andquot;But if it helps out our customers, it'll work out for us.andquot;

Measure 25 asks voters whether Oregon's hourly minimum wage, which hasn't increased in four years, should go up 40 cents in 2003 and then rise each September after that depending on the consumer price index, as measured in urban areas of Oregon.

Supporters say the raise would help former welfare recipients moving back into the workforce and stop the annual erosion of inflation on minimum wage workers, and would not result in significant job losses.

It would benefit the 60 percent of minimum wage earners who are women, they argue, and especially the 25 percent who are single mothers.

Opponents believe the raise would go up too fast each year, since it is tied to Portland's consumer price index. They also believe it would accelerate the rate of inflation and would significantly impact rural areas, since a higher percentage of those earning the minimum or slightly above tend to live away from metropolitan job centers.

Art Ayre, the Oregon Employment Department's labor economist, said that those workers at or near the minimum wage some, such as some restaurant employees, are paid slightly below the minimum do tend to reside in the state's more rural areas.

It's not possible to estimate how many workers in Baker County earn the minimum wage. But some figures indicate many workers are earning low wages compared to other parts of the state.

In Baker County, 22.2 percent of the nearly 7,000 households in the county earn $15,000 or less. A full-time minimum wage worker would earn about $13,500 annually at the present wage; if Measure 25 takes effect, $14,332.

Per-capita income in Baker County was about $20,000 in 2000, the most recent year statistics are available. Statewide, that figure was nearly $28,000.

The Employment Department said that 473 families in Baker County lived in poverty. That represents a little more than 10 percent of families who reside in the county.

The poverty level for a family of four was $17,650 in 2001.

Ayre said a Bureau of Labor Statistics study indicates there are 76,000 Oregon wage-earners 4.8 percent of the state's workforce at or below $6.50 per hour.

The fact that Oregon has the ninth-highest minimum wage in the nation may contribute to the state's high unemployment rate, he speculated. At 6.7 percent, the state's unemployment rate is nearly a point above the national rate and was, this summer, the highest rate in the nation.