Em Burnett (left) and Kate Sykes of People First Portland speak to the media in front of supporters at Portland City Hall on Nov. 4. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Lawyers for the city are arguing that a voter-approved initiative giving Portland workers hazard pay at 1 1/2 times the minimum wage during states of emergency doesn’t take effect until 2022.

That legal interpretation puts the city at odds with the ballot measure’s proponents, who argue that the provision takes effect next month and would help workers who need to work outside their homes as virus cases surge during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Along with raising hazard pay, the ballot measure that passed with more than 60 percent of the vote gradually raises the minimum wage within city limits to $15 a year by 2024. It was one of four progressive ballot measures voters approved in last week’s election, and which city lawyers are now reviewing to prepare for their implementation.

City lawyers interpreted the hazard pay provision — which would apply during states of emergency declared by the city or state, such as the emergency proclamations that have been effect during the coronavirus pandemic — as being dependent on the provision raising the local minimum wage. The first minimum wage increase under the ballot measure takes effect Jan. 1, 2022, when the wage rises to $13 an hour.

Proponents of the new ordinance anticipated that the city would delay implementation of the measure, but city lawyers have no justification for the delay, said Benjamin Gaines, a lawyer who advises People First Portland, which campaigned for the ordinance.

“Common understanding was that this measure would be swiftly implemented and allow for a hazard minimum this winter,” Gaines wrote in a memo to city lawyers.

The ballot measure included summary language that used the current, $12-an-hour minimum wage and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as explanatory examples. If the hazard pay provision took effect next month, a minimum wage worker would be entitled to $18 an hour in hazard pay.

“Such ballot language would have given voters the clear impression that such an effect would be implemented starting December 3,” Gaines wrote, citing the customary 30-day period before successful referendum questions take effect.

Mayor Kate Snyder released the lawyers’ interpretation of the ballot measure after an hour-long session Tuesday night.

The interpretation is expected to provoke legal challenges.

In October, all but one city councilor opposed passage of the five referendum questions backed by People First Portland, saying that they were poorly written and would hurt businesses in the city.