The New Year will come at a cost for just about everyone in the city of Portland.

Property owners, including businesses and residents, are being billed for the amount of stormwater that runs off their land. Landlords are required to register and pay a fee for each of their rental units.

But the new ordinance that generated the most headlines this year was the city’s minimum wage. Starting Jan. 1, employers must pay their workers at least $10.10 an hour – $2.60 higher then the state minimum; however, few businesses are expected to be affected by the increase, because most employees in Portland make about $10 an hour.

State officials and labor advocates are concerned the ordinance will create confusion for workers and employers, while establishing an onerous process for aggrieved workers.


Businesses, trade groups and city officials admit few people will be affected when the minimum wage in Portland increases to $10.10 an hour on Friday, making the new ordinance more of a political statement than anything else.


But that isn’t stopping the Maine Department of Labor from raising concerns about how the ordinance would be enforced and to whom it would apply.

The department worries that there isn’t a clearly defined process for complaints to the city. The Southern Maine Workers’ Center has the same concern.

“We all know that labor laws are only as strong as the means with which they are enforced,” DrewChristopher Joy, the group’s executive director, said in a recent newsletter. “Portland’s ordinance isn’t as strong on enforcement as it should have been, and the city is going to have to learn – for the first time – how to enforce labor law. That’s why the Southern Maine Workers’ Center will be doing more than celebrating the new ordinance: We’ll (also) be out talking to low-wage workers about how the law is working, and available to anyone who needs support because their employer hasn’t paid them what they are owed under the law.”

Anyone who is not making the new minimum must file a complaint – in writing – to City Manager Jon Jennings, who will look into the complaint or designate someone in his office to investigate. Jennings said he wouldn’t hire someone to enforce the ordinance unless it becomes necessary.

In September, he estimated it would cost more than $100,000 to hire an enforcement official and create a legal fund.

“Certainly if we see an overwhelming issue that requires additional staffing we’ll move forward, but I don’t want to spend the money on additional staff until I know there’s a problem,” Jennings said Wednesday. “From our standpoint, we really have no idea how many employees or employers would be impacted by the increase in the minimum wage.”


Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the state is concerned about the lack of dedicated enforcement staff, and that the city is requiring complaints in writing. She said the state has four screeners, who also take complaints over the phone, and six enforcement officials for the entire state.

Rabinowitz said the state will refer all Portland-based wage complaints to the city and advise workers to contact an attorney, since the ordinance allows for a private right of action against an employer, who can be held liable for legal fees and back wages if the employee prevails.

“If the employee feels like they’re not getting any recourse through the city they can always contact us and we will do what we can, but we may only be enforcing the state minimum wage,” she said. “It’s going to be a big boon for lawyers.”

As of Tuesday, Rabinowitz said state workers referred 418 wage complaints to the Wage and Hour Division in 2015. Of those, 169 were determined to be valid and involved 391 separate labor law violations.

The state also is concerned about to whom the ordinance applies, Rabinowitz said.

For example, the ordinance applies only to businesses with locations and employees doing work in Portland. That means an out-of-town company doing temporary work in Portland, such as landscapers or roofers, isn’t required to pay the city’s minimum wage.


She also questions whether a fast-food worker who may usually work outside Portland, but occasionally covers a shift in Portland would have to be paid the city minimum wage.

“It’s a giant loophole and it’s confusing for workers and it’s confusing for employers,” she said, noting that Bangor’s minimum wage ordinance covers anyone who is working in Bangor.


The law is even more confusing for tipped workers, which includes waitstaff, valets, nail salon workers, hairdressers and possibly housekeepers. Employers may pay a worker a tipped wage if that employee makes at least $30 a month in tips, as long as the employee is notified in advance.

When the City Council first passed the ordinance over the summer, it inadvertently increased the base wage for tipped workers from $3.75 an hour to $6.35. They later rescinded that provision.

State labor officials said tipped workers and employers need to keep track of the hours, tips and hourly wage to make sure workers are getting at least $10.10 an hour, on average, over the course of a week. If a worker’s wages and tips in a week fall short of that amount, the employer must pay the difference.


Rabinowitz said that employers are allowed to pay the tipped wage only during hours when that employee is making tips. So if, say, a waiter or waitress does tasks such as rolling silverware after a shift or other work where they are not able to earn tips, such as cleaning or setting up for the next day, the employer is obligated to pay them the city’s minimum, she said.

Employers also are obligated to pay time-and-a-half after an employee works 40 hours in one week: That’s the regular tipped wage $3.75 (half of the state minimum), plus half of the city’s minimum (or $5.05).

Rabinowitz said the complexity of labor laws is the main reason Gov. Paul LePage sought to prohibit municipalities from enacting their own minimum wages.

“It’s a burden on the city to do this enforcement and it’s a burden that taxpayers already are paying for at the state level, which is exactly why the governor put in a bill to have one minimum wage,” she said. “The governor wants to eliminate confusion for anyone who does business in Maine.”


The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce has estimated that only 1,000 workers will actually benefit from the higher minimum wage.


But finding any workers or businesses who will be affected is difficult. The Press Herald contacted a variety of businesses in industries that are typically low-wage, including fast-food restaurants, seafood processors, hotel staff, some Medicaid-reimbursed home health care workers and locker room attendants.

Some corporate businesses, such as Burger King and Barber Foods, didn’t want to comment, while others said the ordinance would have no impact on their employees.

Other businesses, including many hotels, the Maine Red Claws and the Portland Pirates, did not return calls for comment.

The Maine Restaurant and Innkeepers Association predicted minimal impact for its membership, while the Maine Franchise Owners Association didn’t return several calls seeking comment.

Peter Handy, owner of Bristol Seafood, a seafood processor, said only a few employees make less than $10 an hour, but he plans on increasing his starting wage to $11 an hour as of Jan. 1. He said the ordinance is playing only a small role – he is raising wages to attract and retain quality employees, which has become harder now that the city’s economy has rebounded.

“Everything we sell is hand-finished here on the fish pier in Maine,” Handy said. “That’s our final quality check for us to know our customers are getting the very best seafood. To get very best seafood we need to have the very best people.”


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