Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, onstage at a forum in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit against the City in Portland Superior Court on Tuesday, seeking to overturn or delay provisions of a wage-increase referendum passed by voters last month.

Last month, Portland passed a citizen-led ballot initiative 62-38 that would gradually raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour by 2024 and enact emergency hazard pay for essential workers at 1.5 times the municipal minimum wage.

But the Chamber is trying to strike that effort, arguing that the initiative “exceeds the scope of legislative powers reserved to municipal voters under the Maine constitution,” CEO Quincy Hentzel said Tuesday.

The Chamber is asking a judge to strike the ordinance, arguing that the referendum did not have constitutional authority to set an emergency wage provision under Portland City Code, according to John Aromando, a lawyer with Pierce Atwood representing the Chamber.

Aromando argued that changing the municipal wage is an “administrative issue” — not a legislative one — and so exceeds the reach of the voter initiative.

If that effort fails, the Chamber is asking for a court to rule that a hazard pay provision requiring employers to pay workers at 1.5 times the rate of municipal wage would officially not take effect until Jan. 1, 2022. Voter referendums typically become law 30 days from their approval.

The city has said it will not enforce the ordinance until then, but expects some workers to sue employers for back wages and court fees based on the language of the ordinance, which some lawyers have disputed.

Additional plaintiffs in the case include Portland restaurants Nosh Kitchen Bar, Slab and Gritty McDuff’s Brewing Co., retailer Play It Again Sports and the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, a nonprofit. 

Richard Pfeffer, owner of Gritty McDuff’s, said he would “reduce the number of kitchen employees from 12 to five” and reduce other employees’ hours if the ordinance were to take effect, according to an affidavit. 

Malory Shaughnessy, director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, said that some of its six Portland-based member organizations, would consider reducing employees’ hours or moving operations from the city unless the organization received more funding. Wages paid by the nonprofit’s member organizations are reimbursed by MaineCare, and offsetting the increase would require approval from the legislature or a grant by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Other small businesses have supported the measure.

The City of Portland had not received the lawsuit as of early Tuesday afternoon spokesperson Jessica Grondin said, and declined to comment on it.

People First Portland, a progressive coalition that led the ballot initiative and three others that passed last month, pushed back on the lawsuit, reminding the Chamber that Portland residents are forced to work in dangerous conditions during the largest spike in coronavirus-related deaths in the state.

“As the Chamber of Commerce schemes to deny low wage workers— disproportionately women and people of color, our rightful wages, we stand firm that on Dec. 6th, employers must pay no less than $18 an hour,” the group issued in a statement Tuesday.

Hentzel said that People First Portland “are hurting the very people they sought to help” in advancing the wage increases.

“We are the people we are trying to help,” said Kate Sykes, a volunteer with People First Portland.

In 2016, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce led a failed effort to oppose a voter referendum to gradually raise the minimum wage from $7.50 to $9 per hour in 2017, and to $12 an hour by 2020, arguing that it would force small businesses to close.

Some researchers warn that raising the minimum wage could lead to job losses. Others say the effect will be muted, and that a disproportionate number of minimum wage workers are women and people of color, and that a $15 minimum wage is essential to achieve a basic standard of living in all regions of the county.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled John Aromando’s last name.