Whole Foods Market workers board up their store after a racial justice protest in the Brooklyn borough of New York in June. Credit: Frank Franklin III / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Three sets of lawyers argued before Maine’s highest court Tuesday in a case that will decide when to apply a voter-approved wage hike for thousands of Portland workers.

The case is a major issue for frontline workers in Maine’s largest city, who have spoken out against working public-facing jobs that risk their health during the pandemic.

Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce v. City of Portland stems from a ballot initiative passed by voters in November that would give minimum-wage workers a time-and-a-half emergency wage — also known as hazard pay — in declared states of emergency.

On Tuesday, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments on two disputed fronts: whether the emergency wage provision passed by voters is valid — as ruled by a lower court in February — and whether it goes into effect 30 days after the election by default, or January 2022 in lockstep with the ordinance’s gradual minimum wage hike.

The Court’s decision, which had not been reached as of Tuesday evening, will have a dramatic impact on roughly 9,00 Portland frontline workers, who continue to face uncertainty in public-facing work settings with coronavirus cases on the rise despite climbing vaccination rates.

The Chamber of Commerce sued the city weeks after the voter initiative passed, challenging the validity of the ordinance. Another legal team intervened on behalf of two Whole Foods workers, who argued that they should be given voter-approved hazard wages while risking their health in frontline positions.

Representing the Chamber of Commerce, attorney John J. Aromando argued that although municipalities have the authority to set wages higher than the state minimum, Portland citizens don’t have that authority to do so by voter initiative.

Aromando argued that local wage issues are of “shared municipal and statewide concern” because local wages have downstream effects on wages and economic conditions in neighboring towns. Therefore, the issue is out of the reach of local voters.

The Law Court seemed to disagree with Aromando’s argument, citing a 2014 decision in Friends of Congress Square Park v. City of Portland.

“There we said … we liberally construe grants of initiative and referendum powers so as to facilitate rather than handicap the people’s exercise of their sovereign power to legislate,” the Law Court justice said.

Arguing for quicker implementation of the ordinance, attorney Shelby Leighton said that the ordinance was passed with “near-universal consensus that it would help during the pandemic.”

Law Court justice Joseph M. Jabar agreed that it was “fairly clear that the proponents of this initiative intended for it to start immediately,” but acknowledged that there is ambiguity in the plain language of the ordinance that could tie the emergency wage hike to the gradual increase in 2022.

“This turn of events must have been deeply disappointing to all those who expected this would provide them with some relief during this COVID time,” Jabar said.