Portland public school employees earning less than $18 an hour can expect to see hazard pay wage increases soon, following a decision by the school board to implement a city referendum that raises the minimum wage during state or city emergency declarations.

The decision stands in contrast to the position of the city, which has said it does not intend to enforce the hazard pay provision until 2022 and has not raised the minimum wage for municipal employees. It also raises questions about whether other school employees currently earning $18 per hour or more might also expect to receive wage increases or hazard pay.

The Board of Public Education voted 6-2 Tuesday on a measure that calls for the hazard pay provision of the minimum wage ordinance to be applied retroactively to Dec. 3. The money would start appearing in employees’ paychecks Jan. 15.

Jeff Irish and Sarah Thompson voted against the measure, though Thompson later joined the majority in supporting the provision when it was included as an amendment in part of a larger proposal for how the district plans to operate after the current coronavirus relief funding expires at the end of the month. Micky Bondo was absent.

“I believe this is the moral thing to do, to provide for our lowest-wage workers in the midst of a pandemic,” board Chairwoman Emily Figdor said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I know there are businesses all over the city who have already started to provide hazard pay and I see it as our obligation to follow the will of the voters and not to let a technicality in the law keep our lowest-wage workers from being able to support themselves and their families in this time of economic hardship.”

The minimum wage referendum, approved by more than 60 percent of voters last month, has been controversial. City officials have said the hazard pay provision would not kick in until January 2022 and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce has also filed a lawsuit to block the hazard pay provision. A judge is expected to rule next month on whether the provision should take effect immediately or in 2022.

In addition to raising the minimum wage during state and city emergencies, the referendum also gradually increases the minimum wage from $12 to $15 starting in 2022. The hazard pay provision was widely expected to take effect this month because of the ongoing state of emergency triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, but the city said last month it would not enforce the provision until 2022. Some businesses, however, have decided to adopt the emergency $18 per hour minimum wage out of fear a delay could leave them open to lawsuits.

In an email to the Press Herald on Dec. 11, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city has about 62 regular employees earning between $13.38 and $17.79 per hour, although there are hundreds more on-call, seasonal and temporary workers who work as-needed and earn hourly rates of less than $18 per hour. Grondin said the city had not increased its minimum wage as of Dec. 11, and she did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday. Mayor Kate Snyder also did not respond to an email or phone message.

Currently the school district employs about 100 people who earn less than $18 an hour. They include cafeteria workers, building aides, education technicians, bus assistants and custodians. The school district’s legal counsel has agreed with the city that the minimum wage referendum, including the hazard pay provision, does not go into effect until Jan. 2022.

However, the board was presented with information about the provision Tuesday as part of a larger discussion on how the district is planning to operate financially after current coronavirus relief funds run out at the end of the month. Superintendent Xavier Botana recommended the board hold off on implementing the provision while the judge’s decision is pending in the lawsuit filed by the chamber.

“I’m not saying we should fight it,” Botana said Tuesday. “I’m not saying we should file an injunction or do anything along those lines. I’m saying we should wait and when the time comes, if we’re required to do it we’ll do it and if we’re not required to do it, we don’t do it.”

The district is estimating it would cost around $85,000 to pay hazard pay for eligible workers for the rest of the fiscal year. Where that money would come from is unclear, though the superintendent said Tuesday that more federal funding could help offset the cost or allow the district to reallocate funds in other areas. Some board members said Tuesday the $85,000 would be a manageable deficit.

“Also, it’s the will of the voters,” said board member Roberto Rodriguez. “The referendum as it was understood by many would have had us do what we’re attempting to do with this amendment. This isn’t far from what the majority of Portland expected and what I expected when I voted in favor of the referendum.”

Some board members and Botana raised concerns, however, about whether employees making around $18 per hour or slightly more will also expect pay increases if the minimum wage is increased. “I do know these are some of our hardest workers and we’ve always been supportive of all of our unions, but until we have clear guidance from the courts I think it’s best to sit tight,” Thompson said.

Representatives for the unions representing teachers, ed techs and support staff did not respond to emails Wednesday.

On Monday, Congress voted to approve a $900 billion coronavirus relief package, including $82 billion for education and $10 billion for childcare, but President Trump has not yet signed the bill, and it remains to be seen when states could start to see the funding. The package also includes an extension of a Dec. 30 deadline to spend current coronavirus relief funds that could extend the ability for Portland and other school districts to use unspent money from the initial round of funding.

The board on Tuesday voted to extend childcare programs the district has been offering in conjunction with the city and nonprofits with the federal funding but that it had planned to discontinue after the end of the month without more money. The programs will now be in place for an additional month with the superintendent expected to present the board with additional information on coronavirus funding Jan. 19 and a decision on the long-term future of the programming scheduled for Feb. 5.

In other business, the board voted unanimously to authorize the superintendent to pursue bids for three elementary school renovation projects at Longfellow, Reiche and Presumpscot elementary schools. The projects would be put to bid on a staggered schedule between February and April with construction on all three projects scheduled to start this summer.


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