By Kris McDowell
It won’t come as a surprise to many that most Oregon jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. The Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP) took a deep dive into this topic with a report that discusses this subject and outlines what can be done to help fix the problem.
OCPP has published both a 23-minute podcast with its Senior Policy Analyst Janet Bauer (bit.ly/OCPPpodcast) and an executive summary of the report (bit.ly/OCPPsummary) from the research done in 2019, just before the pandemic.
Research determined that a worker in a two-adult family would need to earn more than $20 per hour, year-round, in a full-time position to earn enough to cover basic necessities. 55 percent of all jobs in Oregon in 2019 paid less than that threshold.
In addition, one third of all jobs paid less than $15 per hour. The $15 per hour figure is of significance as it was the minimum wage goal developed for Oregon years ago. Since then, inflation has increased the amount workers need to earn to cover the cost of the basic necessities.
To put this in perspective, consider the minimum wage. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, with Oregon’s minimum wage ranging from $14 per hour in the Portland metro area to $12 in rural areas of the state.
One might assume that living in a rural area would be less expensive than an average for the state and, while that is technically true in most cases, the cost difference is relatively small. For a single adult, the statewide hourly income needed would be $13.02 and rural income would be $11.28.
For a two-adult household with two children in childcare, the statewide figure would be $38.86 with $36.52 in a rural area. For the two-adult family (no children), the rural figure of $21.31 is actually higher than the statewide $20.64.
OCPP’s definition of what constitutes a poor quality job goes beyond just the amount it pays. It includes insufficient benefits, insufficient hours offered or unpredictable hours and other working conditions.
Many low-wage and part-time workers lack health insurance that not only helps workers stay healthy and employed, but also protects workers’ finances from debilitating medical bills.
In 2019 one in 10 Oregon workers lacked health insurance even though the state had one of the strongest job markets in decades.
Sick leave is another benefit that, thanks to a 2015 law, allowed nearly all Oregon workers to take time off when they get sick.
What is unclear, is how many workers are paid when they use their sick leave since only workers at companies of 10 or more employees (six or more for businesses in Portland) are covered by this law.
Unpredictable work schedules are also an indicator of a poor quality job, often taking financial and emotional tolls on workers.
Families who have children that need care may have to pay more for last minute childcare, or in the absence of being able to secure childcare, not be able to go into work, thus resulting in a smaller paycheck.
Unpredictable schedules often prevent workers from securing a second job to compensate for missed earnings.
During the podcast, Bauer stressed the need for a fundamental rethinking of the job market and offered policy solutions that go beyond a simple increase of wages. These include an improvement of workers’ ability to negotiate for better pay and working conditions.
One way of doing this is the reclassification of non-traditional workers (gig, temporary, on-call and others) that are often incorrectly classified as independent contractors, resulting in a lack many of the legal protections and benefits other workers enjoy.
The report identified ways the state can reduce or offset the cost of basic needs to help families make ends meet. These included instituting universal, affordable childcare; statewide, long-term rent assistance; increasing subsidies for health insurance premiums; and boosting nutrition assistance amounts families receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).