On January 3, Portland’s City Council will vote on whether or not to repeal the state of emergency that was enacted on August 2, 2021. Without a state of emergency in place, Portland minimum wage workers, or any worker making less than $19.50/hr on January 1, 2021, will lose their hazard pay.
In 2020, Portlanders voted to pass a minimum wage referendum which included the hazard pay provision. Hazard pay is triggered when a state of emergency is declared within the geographical boundaries of the City of Portland, whether by the State, the City or the Federal government. Governor Mills’ State emergency declaration expired shortly before the City Council voted to extend theirs in August.
Hazard pay contributes to minimum wage workers’ safety net if they catch COVID. That is what brought many Portlanders to the front of City Hall, on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.
The January 2 rally for hazard pay was organized by members of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. The first speaker and Maine DSA Steering committee member, Leo Hilton, spoke passionately about his reason for supporting the state of emergency. “I was proud to work on the ballot initiative campaigns that we ran as People First Portland,” Hilton said, “I believe that the success of those ballot initiatives proved that when working class Portlanders stand up and fight for one another, there is a better world to win within our grasp.”
Though many people have switched to working from home, not everyone has had that privilege. Hilton works as an apprentice electrician, and he said he couldn’t be happier to be working outside in Maine’s coldest months. “When half of your small team has been out in the last two months, either caring for a sick family member, or sick with COVID themselves, it’s an enormous relief,” Hilton said. “I can’t imagine what folks who have to work inside a grocery store or a daycare, let alone a hospital, are going through.”
Jake Gamache, a Hannaford employee, offered some insight into just what is happening for essential workers. “I have to expose myself to the virus while I’m working,” Gamache said. “Half of the customers aren’t wearing masks. That sounds pretty hazardous to me when you’re talking about COVID 19.”
The CDC has reported that Omicron is spreading quicker than any other variant. With the guidelines for quarantining shortened from 10 days to 5 days, workers are likely to see cases increase. As of January 2, the seven-day-average of COVID cases in Maine is 708.
Municipal emergency powers derive from the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, which outlines the need to protect the health and welfare of workers in order to maintain the production of essential goods and services. With case counts rising, workers are a key component in the defense Portland can mount against the virus. Portland’s emergency powers are broad, and include the ability of the City Manager to restrict the movement of people within the city. These powers are not elsewhere specifically authorized in the City Code, raising questions if a mask or vaccine mandate, which restricts the movement of citizens through indoor spaces, both public and private, could be enforced without an emergency order in place.
Gamache believes that without hazard pay, workers are choosing between homelessness, going hungry, or spreading the virus further. “Hazard pay could help me save money to be able to stay home if I need to. People need to be able to quarantine,” he said.
“It’s a public health issue, but let’s be real, it’s a wage issue too.” Gamache continued, “We can’t rely on the business owners to protect us.” He also questioned whether workers can trust liberal-progressive leaders or other political instruments to act on their behalf. Gamache called for others to join the DSA and find how we can work together to make Portland a better place for workers.
Former Mayor Ethan Strimling spoke with vigor about the gravity of this vote, “Tomorrow the council has a chance to make this clear. They’re the ones we have to make it clear that our workers matter. We have to make it clear that workers deserve hazard pay.”
Since there is no public comment on this issue for the Councilor’s meeting, the best way to make your voice heard is by emailing city council.