A worker at Whole Foods in Portland sanitizes a shopping cart on March 2, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Portland’s hazard pay ordinance was upheld by Maine’s high court on Tuesday, but it was only a partial victory for supporters of the law as justices agreed with the city’s stance that it does not take effect until January 2022.

The law, which was enacted in 2020 as part of a progressive slate of referendum questions in Maine’s largest city, has been subject to legal and political questions since before it was approved. It will raise Portland’s hourly minimum wage to 1 1/2 times the city’s minimum during a state of emergency for frontline workers. That would be just over $18 hourly if applied now.

While many expected that portion of the law to go into effect 30 days after the election, the city of Portland determined the effective date was January 2022 because of how supporters drafted another portion of the ordinance that would incrementally increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2024.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court’s decision on Tuesday, saying the ordinance was properly enacted under the state Constitution and the city code. But the justices found that the law’s effective date of Jan. 1, 2022, was “unambiguous on its face.”

The legal limbo around the ordinance led to some large employers, including Hannaford and the University of Southern Maine, to abide by its terms voluntarily. But many others, including the Amazon-owned Whole Foods and MaineHealth, the provider that runs Maine Medical Center, resisted raising pay after the city determined the law was not in effect.

The minimum wage change passed alongside three other progressive items in a 2020 campaign led by People First Portland, an offshoot of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce was the main opponent of the wage question and two other business-related ones that capped rent increases and enshrined strict environmental standards for publicly funded housing developments.

In a statement, Quincy Hentzel, the CEO of the chamber, said she was “glad that businesses in Portland finally have some certainty” around the law. People First Portland did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...