Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said staffers are working to understand the city’s legal obligations and how to implement five citizen initiatives approved by voters on Tuesday, including whether to require local employers to raise wages for some minimum wage workers next month.

A newly adopted ordinance that will gradually increase Portland’s minimum wage to $15 an hour also included a provision requiring time-and-a-half pay for minimum wage employees required to report to their Portland workplaces during a declared emergency.

It was widely accepted by both proponents and opponents that the provision would take effect in December while the statewide coronavirus emergency is in effect, creating a temporary minimum wage of $18 for workers who qualify.

In fact, the summary language placed on the ballot by the City Council stated: “For instance, if the minimum wage were $12/hr, and the State of Maine or the City of Portland issued emergency proclamations such as the emergency orders declared during the COVID-19 pandemic, work performed during that emergency would be paid at 1.5 times the minimum wage, or $18/hr.”

But Snyder said Thursday that the city’s legal department is currently working to verify that interpretation.

“This is one of the issues that comes up with an ordinance being drafted with input from a whole lot of people,” she said. “There’s a lot of interpretation that happens. I’m not looking for this to be a lightning rod in any way. I actually think there’s a legitimate question to be asked.”

The confusion stems from the fact that the ordinance says the emergency pay applies to the minimum wage “established by this ordinance” and refers to the incremental wage increases set to begin on Jan. 1, 2022. But the referendum is amending an existing minimum wage ordinance, which has been in effect since 2016, rather than creating an entirely new one. The ordinance sets the current minimum wage at $12 an hour.

Snyder said she has received calls from small businesses and nonprofits worried about the impact and questioning whether they have to begin paying workers $18 an hour next month, or if the provision kicks in with the first wage increase in 2022.

“They are very urgently asking the question,” Snyder said. “I think it’s really important to get right.” 

Among those who are concerned are community agencies that base staff salaries on Mainecare reimbursement rates.

Lindsay Decsipkes, of Momentum Inc., a community-based agency that provides a variety of support services to adults with intellectual disabilities, wrote an email to the mayor saying she appreciates “the energy behind this in supporting essential businesses,” but worried about its impact on the Bomb Diggity Arts program in Portland. She said the agency and other community support programs are reimbursed only for $11.40 an hour for direct support staff through the state’s Mainecare program and can’t afford any more.

“So though we would like to be able to pay our staff more, $18/hour will put us out of business,” she said in a follow up interview by email. “We would shut our doors and be unable to support the people with intellectual disabilities we work with everyday and our entire staff would be out of work.”

Momentum Inc. Director Dennis Strout, however, said later Thursday that it’s too soon to know the full impacts of wage increases and he didn’t want to worry clients unnecessarily. He said the organization is trying to find ways to keep the program going.

People First Portland, a political committee formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and their allies, laid out a list of next steps for the city to follow to implement the four referendum initiatives, including notifying businesses about the hazard pay that takes effect next month.

Volunteer Em Burnett said the city needs to inform businesses that “starting Dec. 3, all essential workers must be paid no less than $18 an hour, and that the wage for all minimum wage workers will increase to $13 an hour on Jan. 1, 2022.”

“We think it’s time to center the needs of workers who are risking their lives to work in the middle of a pandemic,” Burnett said.

Benjamin Gaines, an attorney who advised the campaign on the minimum wage question, said the city may be able to make a case that the hazard pay would not kick-in until January 2021, when the state minimum wage goes up. But any effort to delay that provision to 2022 would be a stretch.

“Our intent was this would go into effect on Dec. 3,” he said.

Toby McGrath, an adviser for the We Can’t Do $22, political action committee, which opposed the ordinance, said opponents were also working under the impression the hazard pay would take effect in December. But it’s ultimately the city’s call, he said.

“We’re not making an argument one way or another,” McGrath said. “I think it’s up in the air and it will ultimately come down to the city and their attorneys to determine that.”

Curtis Picard, the director of the Retail Association of Maine, warned during an October forum that the referendum would increase the minimum wage to $18 an hour in December, assuming the current state emergency stemming from the coronavirus was still in effect.

“This policy change is not what we need right now as we continue to navigate the pandemic and start to think about our recovery,” Picard said.

The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce issued an alert to members on Thursday saying that the hazard pay provision “could take effect as early as December 3, 2020.”

The analysis within City Hall is part of a broader effort by city staff to understand the impact of five citizen referendums passed Tuesday.

Once staffers have examined the ordinances and determined their impacts and the city’s responsibilities, Snyder said she will schedule a workshop so councilors can ask questions and the city can begin educating the community and businesses about the new rules.

Activists also included a list of other next steps for the city in the wake of the referendum victories.

In addition to notifying businesses about the hazard pay, advocates called on the city to create a new rental board by early 2021; order landlords to return rents to June 1 rates and provide 90 days notice to at-will tenants to move out; work with the Maine Department of Labor to develop contract language for apprenticeship and prevailing wage requirements; and educate the planning board about new affordable housing rules, and police and city staff about new enforcement measures for anyone violating the ban on the use facial surveillance technology by public officials.

Snyder said the city is working diligently to implement all of the proposals approved by voters.

“I can’t tell you how urgent we all feel that we have to get to work on this,” she said. “It’s our job to get on this immediately and that’s exactly what the city is doing.”

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