By COLIN STAUB
When Portland voters approved the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) in 2018, generating new dollars for green infrastructure projects, the measure promised to pay workers at least 180% of the state’s minimum wage. So why does a new amendment weaken the wage standards?
Funded by a 1% gross revenue tax on large retailers in Portland, PCEF is projected to generate $90 million per year. That money is awarded via grants to projects involving renewable energy, energy efficiency and more. The initiative approved by voters in 2018 sets wage standards that are the same as Oregon’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Technology Act. Those standards, which the state Department of Energy uses when awarding funds through its own green energy grants program, require contractors to pay at least 180% of the minimum wage. In Portland, that’s $26.55.
The Portland City Council on Oct. 26 unanimously approved a slew of amendments to the city code chapter that governs the Clean Energy Fund. The changes were brought forward by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, whose Bureau of Planning and Sustainability oversees the fund; they came after the Portland City Auditor’s office examined the fund early this year and found it needed improvements in accountability, oversight and future planning.
The audit did not recommend adding exemptions to the wage standards included in the law, but the measure Rubio and BPS officials presented to the Council Oct. 19 includes a line that the fair wage standards do not apply if the worker is a volunteer or a “trainee.”
The problem is there’s no definition for “trainee,” leaving the wage loophole open to exploitation. Depending on interpretation, a trainee could include an apprentice or a new hire that is in job training. And under that interpretation, those workers wouldn’t be covered by the family wage standard.
“The end result is they have carved workers out of the family wage standard, and I don’t understand why,” says Ryan Nielsen, political and legislative representative for Laborers Local 737. Ranfis Villatoro, Oregon state policy manager for the Blue Green Alliance, testified before Council on Oct. 19, telling commissioners the trainee loophole “goes against the original intent of the legislation.”
Rubio acknowledged the problem but says it can be fixed during rulemaking.
“As part of the work ahead I’m directing PCEF staff to include defining the terms ‘trainee’ and ‘apprenticeship’ as part of their first administrative rulemaking process,” Rubio said before voting on the amendments Oct. 26.
She said that process will include the PCEF committee (which Villatoro serves on), labor stakeholders, and contractors.
Via email, Rubio’s chief of staff Jillian Schoene explained the motive for the exemption: The PCEF committee received applications from organizations that want to provide volunteer or training programs, but rejected them because the current rules require payment of the family wage.