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Op-Ed: Portland Must Keep Hazard Pay

by | Jan 3, 2022 | Life in Maine, Opinion, Pine and Roses editorials, Politics, Spotlight

Tonight, the Portland City Council will vote on whether to strip Portland workers of the hazard pay we started earning on January 1, 2022. This is the same hazard pay that was enacted by a ballot measure put forward by the Maine DSA; the same ballot measure that over 60% of Portland voters supported in November of 2020; and the same ballot measure that resulted in an ordinance intended to go into effect a year ago. 

While Portland’s Councilors and the staff at the Portland Chamber of Commerce, who are lobbying for these wages to be stripped, are able to work remotely, thousands of Portland’s lowest-paid workers do not have that option. Each day during this pandemic, frontline workers have had to enter workplaces where their lives are at-risk, for jobs that barely pay above $12 an hour.

A huge number of these workers – particularly in the service industry – continue to work with no set schedule, no guarantee of weekly hours, no paid time off, and no health insurance from their employers.  This is true of employees at large multinational employers and small businesses alike. 

And yet, these workers have continued to clock in during this pandemic. They face snide comments, insults and micro-aggressions while interacting with members of the public in the midst of the worst public health crisis of the last century. 

And now, despite record high transmission rates, COVID cases, and deaths in our community, the Portland Chamber of Commerce is pressuring the council to vote to lift the state of emergency for no reason other than to eliminate hazard pay.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this moment is that the Council will be taking this vote from the comfort and luxury of their homes – on Zoom. This is the same manner in which Portland’s public bodies will continue to conduct business moving forward, thanks to adoption of the Council’s Remote Participation Policy. It reveals so clearly the extent of the hypocrisy and the bifurcated, unjust society we live and work in here in Portland.

For many,  the choice to stay home and work; the choice to not enter stores or indoor spaces without mask requirements; the means to stay home;  to call out sick; and to seek medical help immediately — are not decisions that demand a second thought. But for our lowest income workers it is not even an option.

While individuals with six-figure salaries largely continue to work from home, it is those of us who interact with dozens – if not hundreds – of members of the public every day, who do not earn enough money in one hour to afford to buy an at-home rapid Covid test.

Respectfully to the Mayor who keeps claiming that repealing the declaration of emergency in Portland is a decision removed from implementing the city’s hazard wage: stop accusing your constituents of “politicizing” this conversation. This decision is about hazard pay, and it is about our city’s persistent income inequality, our deepening racial disparity, and our lack of access to health care— all even more exacerbated by the pandemic, and why hazard pay must remain.

Those in elected office in this country — from the municipal level to the federal level — should be ashamed of their rhetoric as they continue to passively let people die and suffer at astonishing numbers every single day during the pandemic.

Right now, Portland’s Council has a chance to change that conversation and do something truly meaningful for our workers by voting Monday night to ensure workers continue receiving hazard pay.

Because, honestly, if the current conditions of a worldwide pandemic approaching its two-year mark do not prompt us to provide a living wage for workers, what will?

You can contact City Councilors to urge them to vote to extend hazard pay and the State of Emergency by using their contact info here.

Sarah Louden

Sarah Louden is a resident of Portland who works in education, and is a current member of the Maine DSA Steering Committee.

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