Max Denning

On July 1, the minimum wage in nonurban counties across Oregon increased by 50 cents, from $10 an hour to $10.50 an hour. With more minimum wage increases to come over the next four years, a number of Union County farmers are worried about the potential effects the increases will have on their businesses.

Jed Hassinger, owner of a farm in Cove and president of the Union County Farm Bureau, said the wage increase will indirectly affect producers even though most local farmers pay more than minimum wage.

“For the crops grown in this area that require a lot of hand labor, it’s been tough to find labor in the past few years,” Hassinger said. “So the market has kind of demanded that (Union County farmers) pay more than the minimum wage. In some cases, significantly more.”

He added he doesn’t have any minimum wage workers.

Brett Rudd, president of the Union County Seed Growers Association and sole proprietor of Rudd Farms, said it’s hard for him to find seasonal help, so he already offers workers $1 over the minimum wage to start. Rudd said about half of his 22 employees during peak season make $15 an hour or less.

Hassinger said the minimum wage increase may cause price increases in local products that farmers buy and will hurt farmers’ bottom line.

“Unlike other businesses, farm businesses don’t have the option of just passing increases in their expenses on to their customers,” Hassinger said. “We generally sell our products on a global market, so we don’t get to choose the price.”

Rudd echoed Hassinger’s point.

“Farmers are the only sector of production that we do not control our expenses or income,” he said while explaining that he exports 30 percent of his grass seed overseas and 90 percent of his wheat to Japan.

Hassinger also said the higher minimum wage in Oregon makes it more difficult to compete with Idaho farms, where the minimum wage is only the federally mandated rate of $7.25.

By 2022 the minimum wage in nonurban counties in Oregon will be $12.50, which would make it more than $5 higher than the current Idaho minimum wage.

“It puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” Hassinger said.

Both Hassinger and Rudd argued that minimum wage shouldn’t have to be a family wage.

Hassinger said he considers the minimum wage a training wage, which workers can quickly rise above with experience.

Rudd also pointed out many of the jobs he hires people for don’t require a college education.

“It doesn’t make sense that I have to pay a family wage job to a high school student who does not support a family,” he said.

According to a calculator designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage in Union County for one adult supporting himself or herself is $10.36 an hour. For one adult who is also supporting a child, it’s $22.99 an hour.

As of the 2017 third quarter, there were 160,274 minimum wage jobs in Oregon, according to the Oregon Employment Department. In Union County, there were 1,015 jobs paying $10 or less an hour, which made up 8.8 percent of the total number of jobs in the county. In Wallowa County, there were 270 jobs that paid the minimum wage or less, making up 8.9 percent of the total number of jobs in the county. In Baker County, there were 686 jobs paying $10 or less an hour, constituting 11.6 percent of the total number of jobs. Each county has a higher share of minimum wage jobs than the statewide share of 7.4 percent.

Rudd said the steady raising of minimum wage until 2020 will lead to more autonomous methods of farming.

“If I’m spending $100,000 on contract labor, it makes it pretty appealing to go build a robot,” Rudd said.