City Council Approves Massive Pay Cut to Frontline Workers
January 4th, 2022 — Portland, Maine — Last night, in an 8-1 vote at City Hall, District 2 Councilor Victoria Pelletier remained the only member brave enough to stand up for Portland’s working class. Mayor Kate Snyder and all other Councilors, including self-described progressives Andrew Zarro, Anna Trevorrow, April Fournier, Roberto Rodriguez, and Pious Ali voted to repeal the city’s Emergency Order. This action stole back from Portland’s pandemic workers a well-due increased minimum wage of $19.50 per hour.
As quoted in Beacon, Councilor Pelletier urged the others to reconsider. “How are we in good faith saying we’re a city that prioritizes its workers and its low-income and communities of color, beyond the Black Lives Matter and a ‘thank you’ to essential workers? And how are we adding equity as a top issue we want to tackle in Portland without actually providing financial compensation to those who need it?”
The actions of the rest of the Council make it clear that they are not concerned by the serious issues raised by Councilor Pelletier. Caving to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and big business leaders, and despite conclusive evidence that the pandemic conditions in Portland are as bad now as they have ever been, the Council voted to eliminate a standing state of emergency that the previous council had initiated when the State of Maine’s State of Civil Emergency expired last June.
The hazard pay provision to Portland’s minimum wage ordinance is only a little more than a year old, but it has already been a major point of conflict between workers and their bosses. Originally proposed along with a slate of other ballot initiatives for the November 2020 election, the minimum wage/hazard pay ordinance passed with overwhelming approval from Portland voters. 25,210 Portlanders, 62.45% of voters, chose to support an increased minimum wage with hazard pay during states of emergency. This measure passed as the first massive wave of the COVID pandemic was hitting Mainers. Portlanders knew what they were voting on and chose wisely, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on misleading campaigns by big business opposed to the measure.
After adoption, the Chamber of Commerce and their business allies fought both the minimum wage and the hazard pay components of the ordinance tooth and nail. They used expensive legal fights to draw the site of conflict away from the public sphere and behind the closed doors of the courts. Thanks to brave workers like Caleb Horton and Mario Roberge-Reyes, who fought their billionaire-owned employer Whole Foods for their right to hazard pay, Portlanders secured a court decision that implemented the Hazard Pay provision on January 1st, 2022, affirming the ordinance but delaying its enforcement by one year.
Even with this temporary legal respite for bosses, many of Portland’s small businesses chose willingly to implement the hazard pay rate, at that time $18 per hour. As Hannaford worker and Maine DSA Elections Committee Co-Chair Jake Gamache reminded the press at a rally this past Sunday, the implementation of hazard pay last year gave some workers the ability to save a little more, here and there, so that they might be able to afford to quarantine if exposed to the virus.
Nearly two years of pandemic conditions have made many contradictions in our society abundantly clear to working people. Our bosses need us to work for them to make money, but they don’t care if we die from COVID or lose our quality of life when maimed by long COVID’s effects. They may claim that they care about us, or that they act in our best interest, but when it comes time to decide between safety and profit, profit always wins. Our leaders, from Federal to local levels shout, “thank you to essential workers,” while cutting back on necessary programs that keep people safe, like unemployment insurance, paid leave, and hazard pay.
This is our call to our city’s leadership: put in place a new Emergency Order that specifically ensures hazard pay to workers. This order should include free and accessible COVID testing, free N95 masks, and comprehensive paid quarantine and sick leave.
To the business owners of Portland (especially those of you who consider yourselves progressive, or social justice oriented): pay the hazard pay rate of $19.50 per hour whether or not the city requires it, until this pandemic is actually over.
To the workers of Portland: stand tall, and stand together. When leaders fail us, our only option is to demand change by organizing in our workplaces. Talk to your coworkers and make a plan to ensure that your boss keeps you safe and pays you well. Please note, your hazard pay at $19.50 is mandated through January 13th. If your employer is not in compliance, you should fill out this form (https://forms.gle/SifxjcNt1JeRFjnPA) for the city, and seek legal assistance immediately.
We are in a crisis and, in situations like these, working people are always made to shoulder the burden for the sake of our economy and society. Meanwhile, big business, banks, and landlords continue to profit with little sacrifice. On the other hand, we know we are the only other people we can rely on: no matter what the bosses do, or what the city fails to do, working people will stand up for each other. When workers work together, we have a world to win.
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