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Monday, September 24, 2012

You can't pump your own gas in Oregon

Before 1947 there were no self-serve gas stations.
You read correctly. Drivers can't pump their own gas in Oregon. Self-serve gas stations are illegal. I'd forgotten this weird little fact until Sunday when I listened to some folk discussing their recent road trip through the American northwest. They were surprised to be told they could not pump their own gas in Oregon. It's been illegal in the state since 1951.

It was just four years earlier, 1947, that Frank Ulrich, an independent gas station operator in Los Angeles,  opened the first self-serve gas station. His mantra was: “Save 5 cents, serve yourself, why pay more?” He sold half a million gallons in his first month.

It took more than two decades but eventually almost every state and province conceded that do-it-yourself gas pumpers would not blow themselves up. Today, only two states remain solid hold-outs: Oregon and New Jersey. Both have looked at rescinding the prohibition but both ran into fierce opposition. Apparently people in those states don't object to forgoing the pleasure of pumping their own smelly gasoline.

So, are their any advantages or disadvantages of having such a law? One person thought it was a great idea as it provided jobs. And they were right. There are approximately a whopping 8000 gas pump attendants in Oregon pumping an estimated $160 million into the Oregon economy.

Some take offence at the fuel pumping restriction and belittle the job creation claim. The ban may create thousands of jobs but they are working-poor-poor type jobs --- and these jobs are created at a very high cost, or so goes the argument. If gasoline in Oregon costs more than in surrounding states, this extra expense is the cost to society for providing folk with substandard jobs.

The argument sounds reasonable but it may not be true. When it comes to salary, the top 25 percent of gas pump attendants in Oregon earn more than $25,250 with those at the very top of the range are taking home something north of $30,000. Tips from appreciative drivers bump the gas jockey income up another notch.

The median salary for pumping gas in Oregon is about $20,000. This isn't surprising as the minimum wage in Oregon is about $9 an hour. This translates into a full-time wage in the neighbourhood of $18,500 annually. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) places the poverty level in Oregon at $11,170 for a single person, $15,130 for a couple and $19,090 for a couple with one child.)

As for the burdensome cost to society, if there is a burden, it is nicely hidden. In New Jersey, the other state where self serve gas stations have been outlawed, the price of gas is consistently less than that charged in surrounding states. In Oregon the cost of gas is not high in comparison with neighbouring states. This fact is confirmed by my friends who recently traveled the roads of Washington state, Oregon and California.

Oregonian reporter Joseph Rose wrote a column on the longstanding law. He recalled an evening from his youth when he and five friends pulled into an Exxon station in need of gas. A lanky figure with a greasy wool cap stood next to the pumps. The man was Rose's dad. Desperate for a paycheck, his dad had taken the only job he could find: Pumping gas.

I read many other similar stories on the Net. Sometimes getting a simple gas jockey job can be a godsend.

When I was in Oregon two years ago, I did pump my own gas. I thought the attendants were worried about spilling fuel on my antique Morgan. Nope. It turns out motorcycle drivers and heritage car owners both enjoy an exemption. I hear diesel drivers are also allowed to pump their own fuel. I fully understand the thinking. I belong to all three groups and can assure you that these are all exceptional people.

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