For the second time in five years, Portland voters are being asked to adopt a $15-an-hour minimum wage that would apply only to businesses and workers in Maine’s largest city.

Only this time, it includes a provision requiring time-and-a-half pay for certain workers during a declared emergency – a provision that could raise the minimum to $18 in December.

The referendum is one of five placed on the Nov. 3 ballot by People First Portland, a political action committee formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and its allies to lead the campaign.

If enacted, Portland would be one of more than two dozen cities nationwide to enact a minimum wage of $15 an hour or more.

But Portland would likely be the only community in the United States that also requires time-and-a-half pay for people who are reporting to their Portland workplace during a declared emergency. That means, if the statewide emergency stemming from the coronavirus is still in effect, businesses may have to begin paying workers $18 an hour in December, temporarily giving Portland the highest minimum wage in the country.

Proponents say a higher minimum wage would help local workers, especially people of color and women, who are more likely to hold low-wage jobs, and the local economy by putting money directly into the pockets of people who need it most. But opponents said the hazard pay provision during declared emergencies would force businesses to close and workers to be laid off.

The proposed ordinance would increase the city’s minimum wage, which is currently in line with the state minimum wage of $12 an hour, by one dollar an hour each year beginning Jan. 1, 2022, until it reached $15 an hour in 2024. After that, annual increases would be pinned to inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers for the Northeast Region. The ordinance maintains the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees, who would earn half of the minimum wage, as long as their tips push them above the full minimum.

The requirement for time and half would take effect in December, meaning the current minimum of $12 an hour would rise to $18 an hour during the state of emergency declared to address the pandemic.

Through Sept. 30, opponents have raised and spent more money than the proponents.

People First Portland PAC had raised over $23,000 in support of its campaign to pass all five of its referenda. About two-thirds of that support, $15,000, has come from unions, while the bulk of individual donations came from people donating under $50. The campaign had a little more than $9,700 remaining for the final month of the campaign.

We Can’t Do $22, the political action committee opposing Question A, has been primarily funded by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, which has provided nearly 88 percent of the $28,450 in total contributions. The chamber donated $15,000 in cash and provided a $10,000 loan. The PAC has nearly $27,000 remaining.

On Tuesday, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and the City Council, with the exception of Pious Ali, announced their opposition to all five of the DSA’s referenda, including the minimum wage.

“Minimum wage is an important issue to continually address,” Snyder said in a written statement. “However, a Portland-only mandated jump to $15 per hour and the requirement to pay time and a half (up to $22.50) during any declared emergency would likely have devastating impacts on both small businesses and employees in Portland.”

Jake Karaisz, a campaign volunteer for People First Portland, said a higher minimum wage is one way residents can begin tackling the growing income disparity in the United States.

An estimated 23,500 Portland workers would see a pay increase under the ordinance, including 14,000 workers currently making less than $15 an hour plus another 9,000 who make more than $15 an hour but who would also receive increases, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank. Fifty-six percent of those workers are women and more than a third are people of color.

Karaisz said that too much attention is paid to helping businesses rather than workers during the pandemic and this is a chance to put more money directly in people’s pockets at a time they need it most, which will actually help the local economy rather than hurt it.

“If you look at what’s happened to working-class people here in Maine and across the country – the gains in the economy have not trickled down,” he said. “So, we’re putting this directly to the people. We definitely think there is the energy right now, in such a heated political moment, to get these measures that directly impact working-class people through.”

In addition to raising the minimum wage, the proposed ordinance also would require businesses to pay time-and-a half hazard pay to any employee who reports to their Portland-based workplace during emergencies. The provision would kick in whether the emergency was declared by the city or state, as long as the latter included Portland.

Karaisz said a worker who sometimes works remotely would be entitled to hazard pay for only the in-office hours and it would up to the employer to track that time.

It’s that hazard pay provision that opponents are building their campaign around. In fact, the political action committee leading the No campaign  made it a part of its name: We Cant Do $22. The PAC is run by the chamber, Hospitality Maine, Play It Again Sports and DiMillo’s restaurant.

The $22-an-hour wage would only be possible during a declared emergency in 2024, when the minimum reaches $15 an hour, making the hazard pay $22.50.

James Cohen, president of the chamber’s board of directors, said this minimum wage proposal is worse than the 2015 proposal because of the hazard pay provision, which he said would be a death knell for small businesses already struggling to survive during the pandemic. And if that occurs, the City Council could not change or amend the minimum wages for at least five years.

Since it was enacted by referendum, the only way to change or repeal it within five years would be through another citywide referendum, which the council itself could originate.

Cohen said the hazard pay provision, when applied to $15 an hour, would give Portland the highest minimum wage in the country. And he said the ordinance does not distinguish between essential, frontline workers, such as grocery store, home health care or restaurant workers, and non-essential workers, who may be working in offices.

“It doesn’t take long for that kind of wage to drive businesses out of Portland and we wouldn’t have the option of repealing it on an emergency basis,” Cohen said. “I don’t have a crystal ball for how long this (coronavirus) emergency will last.”

Declared states of emergency at the city level are very rare, while state emergencies are more common.

The current citywide state of emergency caused by the pandemic, which was declared in March, has been the only one since 2002, according to a City Hall spokesperson.

Since 2001, there have been at least 18 declared state emergencies affecting Portland for things such as storms, power outages, extreme cold temperatures and public health concerns, including the current state of emergency that has been in effect because of the coronavirus since March.

Natalie Jones works at a job in retail and hopes to start her own photography business. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Natalie Jones, 29, has been working at jobs where she directly interacts with the public for the 10 years she has been in Portland. She was furloughed in March from a retail job, where she made $17.50 an hour. She survived on unemployment until September, when she took another retail job earning minimum wage. Now, she and her husband are struggling to make ends meet, including the $1,385 a month for their two bedroom apartment in Parkside.

“I’m starting to feel like I need a second job,” she said, adding that she is no longer getting physical therapy for her knee, because she can’t afford the deductible on her health insurance.

Jones said that workers like her deserve a raise and hazard pay during the pandemic, since they’re on the front lines trying to ensure that customers who enter the store are wearing masks and taking other necessary precautions.

“We’re trying to do our jobs, make sales and make the customers happy,” she said. “But we’re also having to monitor adults to protect our own health and safety. I can’t tell you how many times people have taken their masks off in the store and I have to remind them it’s not OK.”

Seven states have enacted laws to increase their minimum wages to $15 an hour by 2025, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently, 31 cities or counties, nearly all of which are in California, have minimum wages of $15 an hour or higher, though some have exceptions for small businesses, according to the National Employment Law Project. Santa Monica, California, has the highest minimum wage at $17.13 an hour, but it only applies to hotel workers. It is followed by the $16.84-an-hour minimum in Emeryville, California, and the $16.39-an-hour minimum for businesses with more than 500 employees in Seattle. An additional 21 communities have approved laws to reach $15 an hour in the coming years.

The City Council adopted former Mayor Michael Brennan’s minimum wage proposal in 2015, after more than a year of study, committee work and negotiations with local businesses. That action lifted the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which was $2.60 higher than the state minimum wage.

That same year, activists tried to enact a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but it was firmly defeated, with 58 percent of voters opposed.

The following year, voters statewide approved increasing the state minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020, with future increases pegged to the inflation rate.

Last year, former Mayor Ethan Strimling announced during a candidate forum hosted by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce that he would propose a $15-an-hour minimum wage if re-elected. He lost, but spearheaded the initial signature gathering effort to launch the referendum effort.

Cohen accused activists of circumventing the city’s representative form of government and denying businesses and other residents an opportunity to comment on potential impacts to help shape the final policy.

“When you add these kinds of massive labor cost increases it forces businesses to close and for people to be laid off, so it’s the exact opposite of what these people want,” he said.

The full ordinance can be read on the city’s website.

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