Attorney Shelby Leighton quoted in support of new Portland hazard-pay wage law

Labor attorneys and business leaders are urging Portland employers to consult with their lawyers before deciding how much to pay their employees next month, saying that the city’s decision not to enforce a hazard pay requirement until 2022 could expose them to lawsuits.

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Shelby Leighton, an attorney with Johnson Webbert & Young who specializes in employment and civil rights law, said proponents “have a pretty good argument” based on the ordinance text and the city’s written interpretation. That’s because the city’s original minimum wage ordinance, passed in 2016, and the changes approved by the voters each contain references to the state minimum wage. (Leighton serves on the board of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, which worked with People First Portland on the minimum wage issue, but she said she was not involved in the effort.)

“I do think the proponents have a pretty strong argument that this should go into effect in the normal 30 days, and there is significant legal risk in the city’s argument,” Leighton said. “I think the city’s position is that there is no city minimum wage until Jan. 1, 2022. I think that’s a very narrow reading of the ordinance.”

Read the full Portland Press Herald article here.

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Early in the pandemic, Hannaford and other supermarkets incentivized workers with an additional $2 per hour — a kind of hazard pay. But those wage increases expired this summer, even as new cases of the coronavirus continue to set daily records in Maine.

But soon Hannaford and other businesses in Portland will be required to compensate wage-workers for the extra risk they’re assuming during this pandemic after voters here approved a measure earlier this month to boost the minimum wage 1.5 times for those working in-person jobs during states of emergency, such as a pandemic. Portland voters also approved a referendum to bump the minimum wage there to $15 an hour by 2024.

Shelby Leighton, a Portland-based labor lawyer with the firm Johnson, Webbert and Young, said that employers who rely on the city’s interpretation of the ordinance and fail to pay the hazard pay on Dec. 5 take a “significant risk.”

“At best, the city’s argument is that the new ordinance can be read to not create a city minimum wage until 2022,” Leighton said. “But that is not the only reading of the ordinance, or even the most reasonable. When an ordinance can be read multiple ways, courts will look at the intent behind it, which supports immediate implementation.”

Read the full Bangor Daily News article here.