Despite calls for action from members of the public, the Portland City Council on Monday effectively ended an attempt to enact hazard pay and retroactively give essential workers 10 days’ worth of the country’s highest minimum wage.
Councilors, however, agreed to continue discussion around a possible hazard pay provision in the Housing and Economic Development Committee on March 15.
Monday’s vote was 6-3, with Councilors Victoria Pelletier, Anna Trevorrow, and Andrew Zarro in the minority. The proposal was postponed indefinitely, which means it cannot return for discussion without changes. Had the proposal failed in a simple vote, under council rules it could come back at future meetings.
Pelletier proposed the ordinance, which would have raised the minimum wage 50 percent to $19.50 per hour when a mask mandate is in effect. She brought the proposal to the council before it repealed a short-lived mask mandate at the beginning of February.
Several councilors and Mayor Kate Snyder said tying hazard pay to the mask mandate and making it retroactive to give workers 10 days’ worth of hazard pay would be problematic. Snyder said the discussion was “not a zero-sum game,” and the council wasn’t making a decision that was inherently pro-business or pro-worker.
She said decisions about masking and the city’s prior state of emergency, which also included a hazard pay provision, were not enacted with hazard pay in mind. Rather, she said the council was focused on public health, and as such, hazard pay should be a discussion that stands on its own and isn’t tied to anything else, which is why sending it to the committee is important.
While she accepted her proposal would not succeed, Pelletier noted she did not hear alternative suggestions. She said she is glad the discussion will continue in committee where it could include “creative solutions,” such as tiered hazard pay or expanding paid sick leave.
Pelletier said it is important for the council to stand up for frontline workers who haven’t received additional pay despite working through the pandemic. “The pandemic is not a linear path,” she said. “It’s not predictable.”
Approximately two dozen members of the public addressed the council, with business owners or their representatives speaking against hazard pay, and workers or employee representatives speaking for it.
James Grattelo, owner of the Portland Sports Complex on Warren Avenue, called the proposal disingenuous and against the spirit of the hazard pay referendum passed two years ago. He said it was clearly anti-business – and along with the mask mandate, which he said “grossly failed” – was a knee-jerk attempt to vilify business owners.
“It’s time to allow businesses to get back on their feet,” Grattelo said.
But Emery Adams, a member of the Independent Socialist Group, said it is “laughable” to consider $19.50 a livable wage in Portland. Adams said she works three jobs and is barely making ends meet while living with three roommates, so the idea that workers are supposed to survive with the current minimum wage of $13 per hour proves the council is more inclined to side with business owners instead of workers.
“Removing the mask mandate because they were afraid of this amendment was cowardly at best,” Adams said.
Pelletier said the proposal resulted in ugly rhetoric being sent to councilors via email, and said she had received offensive, racist, and sexist messages. She said members of the public need to separate policies from the people who make proposals and remember councilors are their neighbors “who happen to become city councilors.”
“I’m exhausted by some of this rhetoric,” Pelletier said.
After some members of the public said it is hypocritical for the council to continue meeting remotely if it doesn’t believe a mask mandate or hazard pay are necessary for essential workers, Snyder said there will be information from city staff at the March 7 meeting about returning to City Hall for council meetings.
Charter Commission gets extension
Portland city councilors Monday unanimously delayed the deadlines for preliminary and final reports from the Charter Commission.
The commission’s preliminary report, which was due March 8, must now be submitted by May 9; it has until July 11 for its final report, which was due June 8.
Chair Michael Kebede said the commission could have met the March 8 deadline, but the council’s action provides more time for commissioners to finalize proposals.
He said the request for additional time had precedent since the last Charter Commission in 2010 sought and was granted a similar extension.
Kebede said the commission’s goal is still to have recommendations ready to go to voters via referendum in November.
— Colin Ellis