Chamber sues over pandemic emergency wage in Portland, Maine

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce is suing over an emergency wage increase that’s part of a minimum wage referendum approved by voters in the Maine city last month.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday seeks both relief and clarity over when the emergency wage provision trigged by the pandemic — lifting the minimum from $12 to $18 per hour — would go into effect.

People First Portland accused the chamber of scheming to deny a pay raise to low-wage workers who are disproportionately women and people of color.

The organization, which put the referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot, contends the emergency wage provision should take effect Dec. 6. The city, however, believes the emergency wage provision should take effect with the rest of the wage increases in Jan. 1, 2022.

The chamber contends an $18 minimum wage during the pandemic would hurt businesses that are already struggling.

If forced to comply, many businesses would have to close, lay off workers, slash workers' hours or reduce other benefits that they have been providing to their employees, the chamber contends.

“However well-meaning, the unfortunate irony of the emergency wage provision is that the people it was meant to help, the essential workers who can’t work from home, who are showing up during this pandemic, will be the ones hurt the most as businesses struggle under its financial burden,” Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, said in a statement.

People First Portland said it was standing firm that the emergency wage increase should go into effect later this week.

“While we risk our lives for wages that don’t buy enough groceries to last the week, cover our health care bills, or even stay at home when we have to quarantine, the Chamber of Commerce is going to court to fight for the international stockholders of big box stores, fast food franchises, and other corporate chains and to protect the multi-million dollar salaries of private health insurance executives,” the organization said.

The chamber was joined in the lawsuit in Superior Court by the Alliance for Addiction & Mental Health Services, Play It Again Sports, Nosh Kitchen Bar, Slab Sicilian Street Food and Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub.

The Alliance for Addiction & Mental Health Services said its member are bound by reimbursement rates established through MaineCare and state contracts, said Malory Shaughnessy, executive director.

The organizations would have to reduce worker hours, or simply move into a neighboring community, she said.