PORTLAND, Maine — A judge on Monday rejected a bid by the Chamber of Commerce to invalidate a voter referendum that requires employers to provide hazard pay to low-wage essential workers during the pandemic.
A Maine Superior Court judge ruled that the emergency minimum-wage provision passed by voters is valid under the Maine Constitution and Portland City Code.
The ordinance was expected to take effect 30 days after the election, but the court ruled Monday that it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022, siding with city attorneys on their interpretation of the City Code.
The court’s ruling provides clarity on the fate of a citizen’s initiative that Portland voters approved in November by a 62-38 margin that raises the minimum wage for essential workers during emergencies, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Attorneys for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce challenged the ordinance before a judge last month. They argued that emergency wage increases are “administrative” matters and not legislative ones because they could potentially restrict the city’s ability to declare an emergency. The Chamber also argued that the minimum wage provision affects the state’s ability to manage statewide emergencies.
Justice Thomas Warren ruled against both arguments, pointing to a provision added to the City Code by the council in 1991 that allowed for direct citizens’ initiatives.
Attorneys for two Whole Foods workers who intervened in the case are expected to appeal the timeline for implementing the higher wages to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
“We disagree with that interpretation and believe that the initiative can be read to have gone into effect on Dec. 6, 2020, which would be consistent with the ballot question presented to voters,” attorney Shelby Leighton of the law firm Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLC.
Attorneys representing the Chamber of Commerce did not immediately return a request for comment.
Justice Warren said the ruling did not consider “the wisdom of the proposed emergency minimum wage provision or whether its effects will be beneficial or harmful.”
In December, five businesses joined the Chamber of Commerce to sue the City of Portland following the November election, when voters passed four of five measures aimed at strengthening wages and protections for low-income workers and tenants. Owners of those businesses have filed affidavits saying that they will have to lay off workers and change operations because of the ordinance. Other Portland businesses have voiced support.
Two Whole Foods workers, Caleb Horton and Mario Roberge-Reyes, filed as intervenor-defendants in the case. Horton has worked there since July 2020 and makes $15 an hour and Roberge-Reyes has worked there since November 2020 and makes $16 an hour.