Hazard pay remains a possibility for minimum-wage earners in Portland

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With new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations trending in a reassuring direction, the Portland City Council last week ended a month-old citywide mask mandate.

In doing so, the council also delayed any discussion about a new hazard pay provision for workers in the city.

And that isn’t pleasing some progressives.

Victoria Pelletier
Portland City Councilor Victoria Pelletier

Sampson Spadafore, an organizer with the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said the “predictable” vote by the council was a sign it is prioritizing business over the working class.

“This vote was a slap to the face to workers, particularly those in the Black and Brown community, queer and transgender communities, disabled community, and those at the intersections of these minorities, all who are more likely to be exposed to COVID because of the social and economic inequities that limit their job choices to positions with low pay and low security,” Spadafore said. 

He said the DSA maintains that mask requirements and hazard pay remain necessary measures to protect workers, and without them, the city should expect an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“This decision does not go unnoticed and without weight in the eyes of the public,” Spadafore said. “We will continue to demand that the City Council choose public health and worker rights over short-term capital gain.”

Councilor Victoria Pelletier, who reintroduced the hazard pay proposal, said the council is still set to discuss and perhaps vote on hazard pay at its final meeting of the month.

A hazard pay provision that took effect Jan. 1 was approved by voters in November 2020. When the city is operating under a state of emergency, it increases the $13-per-hour minimum wage by 50 percent for the duration of the emergency.

Portland for a few days had the highest minimum wage in the country – $19.50 per hour – until the council ended the city’s state of emergency to allow a return to in-person meetings at City Hall.

Last November’s election of new city councilors was heralded as a major achievement for Portland progressives, giving them what seemed to be enough votes to advance progressive initiatives, including hazard pay.

But the Feb. 7 vote to end the mask mandate as of Feb. 17 was a setback that some didn’t take lightly.

Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef criticized at-large Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier, and Roberto Rodriguez, who voted to repeal the mask requirement.

“Where are the ‘progressives’ we elected?” she tweeted the day after the vote. “It seemed like Pious Ali, April Fournier, and Roberto Rodriguez, who (are) at large, are very comfortable throwing us under the bus. And that, I’ll be happy to return the favor to eliminate at large seats.”

She later apologized on Twitter to these councilors but also said elected officials need to hold each other accountable.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the council’s action does not prohibit businesses or organizations from having their own mask requirements, and the end of the mask mandate does not impact how City Hall operates. The building is still open for limited services, and masks are still required inside. 

“And while we have limited in-person services at this time, I’d like to point out that all services are still happening and functioning,” Grondin said. “Those who cannot complete their services online are able to visit and receive staff support via the greeters we have at both entrances.”

The council was slated to conduct a Feb. 14 workshop on the hazard pay proposal from Pelletier, but it was canceled. She said there is still a second reading and vote scheduled for Feb. 28, and if a workshop were to come out of that, she would be happy.

“I think this is a larger conversation around equitable wages and to make sure we’re showing up for our workers,” Pelletier said.

The decision to repeal the mask mandate came against the guidance of Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow, who told the council that COVID-19 statistics are still not where they need to be.

Pelletier said she was surprised the council ignored Dow’s opinion. She said beyond the mask requirement, her hope is there will be a conversation around fair wages and hazard pay and that it is the council’s responsibility to put value in the city’s workers and do more for those who have to be frontline, essential workers, especially if they are no longer safeguarded by a mask requirement.