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Workers rally outside Portland City Hall, call on city council to not repeal state of emergency

Roughly two dozen rallied at Portland City Hall, urging the city council to keep the city's state of emergency, which triggered hazard pay, $19.50 minimum wage.

PORTLAND, Maine — More than two dozen people gathered outside Portland City Hall on Sunday afternoon to rally in support of the city's state of emergency. 

"COVID is just as bad as it's ever been in our city, in our state. And as long as people have to work in person and expose themselves to a dangerous virus, they deserve to be compensated for their labor, and the dangerous conditions they're working under," said Leo Hilton, rally organizer and steering committee member of Maine Democratic Socialists of America.

On Saturday, workers in Portland began seeing a temporary pay increase due to the ongoing State of Emergency. That wage increase raised the minimum wage for in-person workers in the city to $19.50.

"We believe that we need to keep hazard pay for people who are front-line workers in Portland," Hilton said.

The provision for extra wages during a declared emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic was included in a minimum wage proposal that will increase that rate from $12 to $15 an hour by 2025. It was approved by more than 60% of voters in a local referendum in November 2020. 

In that ordinance, in-person workers in Portland will receive at least 50% above the regular minimum wage whenever a state of city emergency is in place. 

The current wage increase may not last long, however. On Monday, the Portland City Council will vote on whether or not to repeal the existing state of emergency.

According to the agenda for Monday's meeting, since all public bodies have individually adopted the council’s Remote Participation Policy, the emergency order is no longer needed to allow for public meetings to be conducted remotely. 

Some business leaders in the city, including leaders at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, support ending the state of emergency. The chamber wrote in an email last week that it would support a compromise measure to put public health regulations like a face mask mandate into a municipal ordinance while lifting the state of emergency. 

"This wage will undoubtedly place Portland's small businesses at a disadvantage. Large chains will be able to absorb the added costs of a $19.50 minimum wage, but small businesses in Portland will not be able to absorb these costs without direct increases in prices or cuts to services and staff. This strikes directly at our local economic self-reliance and makes it just that much harder for local organizations to compete," the organization wrote. 

However, those that rallied outside Portland City Hall on Sunday disagree. Hilton told NEWS CENTER Maine that as Maine continues to see increasing COVID-19 cases, employees should be paid a higher wage.

"We're in an emergency. We're still in an emergency. As long as we're in an emergency, people deserve to be paid extra for the hazards they're putting themselves in," Hilton said. 

At its meeting on Monday, the Portland council will also discuss whether or not to implement an indoor mask mandate.

According to the meeting agenda, this proposal must be read on two separate days. However, city staff requested that the second reading be waived, which requires seven affirmative votes. Staff also requested that the proposal be passed as an emergency, which would also require seven votes in order to pass as well. 

The Portland City Council meeting begins at 5 p.m. and will take place remotely. 

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