SALEM, Ore. (AP) — For the first time in 72 years, Oregon motorists can grab a fuel nozzle and pump gas into their cars without an attendant, since a decades-old ban on self-serve gas stations has been revoked.
Gov. Tina Kotek signed a bill on Friday allowing people across the state to choose between having an attendant pump gas or doing it themselves. The law takes immediate effect.
That leaves New Jersey as the only state that prohibits motorists from pumping their own gas. A few countries also ban it, including South Africa, where attendants offer to check fluid levels and clean the windshield, with tipping expected.
“It’s about time. It’s long overdue,” said Karen Cooper, who lives in Salem, said shortly before the bill was signed.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in California,” Cooper said. “I know how to pump my own. Everybody should know how to pump their own gas.”
At the same gas station, T.J. Rogers climbed into his pickup truck after squeegeeing his windshield. He expressed a different opinion as attendants in fluorescent yellow vests serviced surrounding vehicles.
“I’d rather have them pump it. It gives people jobs and opportunity,” Rogers said.
When Oregon prohibited self-service in 1951, lawmakers cited safety concerns, including motorists slipping on the slick surfaces at filling stations subject to Oregon’s notoriously rainy weather. In recent years legislators relaxed the rule and allowed rural counties to have self-serve gas available at night. Then they extended it to all hours in eastern Oregon’s sparsely populated areas, where motorists low on gas could be stranded when there’s no attendant on duty.
The COVID-19 pandemic labor shortage helped drive a renewed push to allow self-serve across the state.
“We live in a small town in a large county and can’t find employees to pump fuel,” Steve Rodgers, whose community is at the base of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains, complained to lawmakers. “We are paying top dollar and also offering insurance, paid time off and retirement benefits, and still cannot fully staff.”
Haseeb Shojai, who immigrated from Afghanistan in 2004 and owns gas stations in central Oregon’s high desert, also lamented the labor shortage and described how wildfires, with increased intensity and frequency due to climate change, are having a major effect. The state fire marshal lifted the self-serve ban during dangerous heat waves the past couple of summers.
“Wildfires have been a factor in operating our business in the summer months, when it is hard for our gas attendants to stay for long periods outside in smoke and in heat,” Shojai said. “We don’t know if we can stay open tomorrow or the next day or even next week due to the labor shortage.”
A union representing workers at grocery store fuel stations in Oregon predicted job losses and called the the law a “blatant cash grab for large corporations.”
“With over 2,000 gas stations in Oregon, laying off just one employee per location represents millions of dollars a year that giant corporations are not paying in wages, benefits and public payroll taxes,” said Sandy Humphrey, the secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 555.
Under the new law, there can’t be more self-service pumps at a gas station than full-service ones. And prices for motorists must be the same at both types.
Still, opponents of the measure worry that it could lead to the demise of full-service pumps, depriving older adults and people with disabilities of that option.
“I have some real concerns that we are progressively getting closer and closer to eliminating Oregon’s fuel service law entirely,” Democratic state Sen. Lew Frederick said on the Senate floor in June before voting against the bill.
Brandon Venable, a service station manager, had urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying some customers are careless and that attendants keep people safe.
“I deal with many dangerous situations daily created by people smoking, leaving their engines running, getting in and out of their vehicles creating static electricity, trying to fill up random bottles and jugs, and driving off with the pump still in the vehicle,” Venable said.
Others wonder if motorists who are now clamoring to pump their own gas might be less keen on doing so when they have to stand out in the rain, cold and snow instead of remaining in their warm, dry cars.
Republican state Sen. Tim Knopp, who leads the minority GOP caucus, downplayed safety concerns as he described being allowed to pump his own gas because he belongs to a commercial fueling cooperative.
“I have yet to light myself on fire. I have yet to cause any problems whatsoever as it relates to self-serve gas,” Knopp said during debate on the bill. “So, colleagues, let’s make New Jersey the only state in the country that has a law against self-serve gas.”
The state Senate then approved the bill on a 16-9 vote. The House earlier passed it 47-10.
New Jersey’s 1949 ban on self-service pumps remains a source of pride for some in a state where bumper stickers declare “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas.”
Since New Jersey has lower gas prices than New York and Pennsylvania, many drivers from neighboring states cross the state line to fuel up.
In 2015, lawmakers proposed ending the New Jersey ban, but the measure died because of opposition from the powerful state Senate president.