Wage lawsuit pits Portland Chamber, businesses against city, voters, workers

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A judge is being asked to block the $18-per-hour emergency minimum wage approved last month by Portland voters.

The lawsuit filed by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and the owners of several businesses is being challenged, however, by two employees of a Portland supermarket.

The chamber filed its lawsuit Dec. 1 in Cumberland County Superior Court. The co-plaintiffs are the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Slab pizza, Nosh, Gritty McDuff’s, and Play It Again Sports. The defendants are City Manager Jon Jennings and the city of Portland.

The minimum wage in Portland is now $12 an hour. The initiative raises that to $15 per hour by 2024. But the emergency provision, which requires a 50 percent wage bonus, took effect Dec. 6. If it stands, the current minimum will rise to $18 per hour.

Their complaint claims the plaintiffs would “immediately suffer adverse consequences.” Employers who fail to provide the emergency wage would be at risk of “exposure to both the Initiative’s enforcement by the City Manager and private causes of action brought against them by their employees.”

It also claims employers who pay the escalated scale have no recourse to recover those wages if the measure is repealed.

The chamber says it has eight Portland employees, with at least one person whose pay would be subject to the change. The Augusta-based alliance says it has several member organizations in Portland, each of which has employees subject to the change.

Slab, Nosh, and Gritty McDuff’s all have employees working on tipped wages, which will also change under the initiative.

“Either way, Plaintiffs, and indeed Portland businesses generally, will suffer immediate adverse impacts regardless of their decision, in addition to significant business disruption; employees in Portland will suffer consequences if employers are forced to lay off their workforce or close down entirely; and the courts could be flooded with litigation brought on behalf of employees or the City Manager to enforce the Emergency Provision of the Initiative,” the complaint says.

People First Portland, the architects behind five citizen initiatives that appeared on the Nov. 3 city ballot – four which passed, and one that was narrowly defeated – criticized the chamber’s decision to sue. It said the city is still in the midst of a global pandemic, and the lawsuit seeks to undermine voters while supporting businesses that pay lower wages.

“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. 6 employers must pay no less than $18 an hour,” the group said in a press release.

People First Portland has said it has heard from many nonprofits and businesses in the city that have agreed to pay the hazard wage. It called the City Council’s attempt to delay the hazard wage “illegal,” and said that has led to several businesses not wanting to pay the wage. In turn, the group said, this puts workers in a position of having to sue their employers.

“The City Council should have stood up for workers by enforcing this new law, and using the power of their office to advocate for more aid if they felt some employers needed it,” said Kate Sykes, a volunteer for PFP and a former council candidate. “Instead, they told workers they would have to fight their employers. Hopefully, our new council will be more responsive to the flood of desperate emails sent to City Hall.”

Two Whole Foods workers, Caleb Horton and Mario Roberge-Reyes, were granted intervenor status by the court to challenge the chamber lawsuit.