PORTLAND — The Portland Board of Education has joined a growing list of businesses and organizations in the city deciding to offer hazard pay to employees working through the pandemic.

The cost to increase the pay to $18 an hour, which is 1.5 times the current minimum wage, is expected to be slightly more than $85,000. Nearly 100 workers, including some cafeteria workers, bus aides, education technicians and custodians, would receive the increase. The increase, retroactive to early December, would begin to be included in paychecks in mid-January.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the Board of Education “has the authority to reallocate funding within our authorized levels,” but where the money will be coming from has not been identified.

“I believe this is the moral thing to do to provide for our lowest-wage workers in the midst of a pandemic,” Chairperson Emily Figdor said Dec. 22 before the board approved the measure. “I know there are businesses all over the city that have already started paying hazard pay and see it as our obligation to follow the will of the voters.”

Board members Sarah Thompson and Jeff Irish didn’t agree.

“While I did hear loud and clear from the voters about what they wanted, I think right now, having been on the board a long time, this will have a ripple affect though our unions,” Thompson said before voting not to support the increase.

Additionally, with legal challenges underway, she said there is too much “gray area” for her to support offering hazard pay at this time.

The minimum wage ordinance passed by voters in November incrementally raises the minimum wage in the city, currently $12 an hour, to $13 in 2022, $14 in 2023 and finally $15 in 2024. It also requires “hazard pay” for work done during an emergency period, such as the current coronavirus pandemic.

Recent debate, however, has focused on when the hazard pay would go into effect. Proponents of the ordinance say their intent was for it to be effective immediately. Attorneys that represent the city and school district argue it goes into effect in January 2022 along with the first increase in minimum wage.

A month ago, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Slab, Nosh, Gritty McDuff’s and Play It Again Sports filed a complaint to the Maine Superior Court that argues the hazard pay provision violates state law and local ordinances and that if legal, the pay should not apply until January 2022.

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