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Portland Whole Foods workers file motion asking courts to enforce voter-approved hazard pay initiative

The two workers are asking the court to declare that they are entitled to compensation for their in-person work beginning this weekend.
Credit: AP

PORTLAND, Maine — On Thursday, attorneys for two Portland Whole Foods workers filed a motion to intervene in the just-filed Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce lawsuit, which seeks to throw out or delay the effective date of the emergency hazard pay passed by Portland voters in early November.

Nosh Kitchen Bar, Slab Sicilian Street Food, Gritty McDuff's Brew Pub, Play it Again Sports, the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce filed suit against the city of Portland in superior court on Tuesday morning. According to a referendum passed in November, workers are to receive a minimum wage increase of time and a half during an emergency like the pandemic. The city's current minimum wage is $12 an hour which would mean an increase would be $18 an hour.

"While we bear no ill will towards the city, we cannot allow our member businesses, the majority of which are small and medium sized businesses and organizations to falter under the burden under what is now the highest minimum wage in the country," Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.

Chamber officials say the lawsuit comes from uncertainty regarding the referendum passed by Portland voters last month.

The Whole Foods workers, however, are intervening to ask the court to enforce the will of the people and declare that they are entitled to compensation for their in-person work beginning this weekend.

Attorneys Shelby Leighton and Valerie Wicks of the law firm Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP are representing the workers.

"Praise alone is not enough, essential workers must be paid an increased minimum wage for in-person work during the COVID-19 pandemic," the attorneys said.

RELATED: Portland Chamber and five businesses file lawsuit against city

"While this global pandemic has made for highly challenging conditions for workers on the ground, it has been a boon to Whole Foods and its parent company Amazon’s bottom line," Leighton and Wicks argued. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s revenue, including its revenue from online grocery orders from Whole Foods, has skyrocketed. In the third quarter of 2020, Amazon’s revenue increased by 37% to $96 billion, and it has projected that its total revenue in 2020 will be $380 billion."

“The Chamber’s lawsuit seeks to undo the careful and considered balancing already done by Portland’s voters," Leighton added. "Voters were presented with the pros and cons of increasing the minimum wage for essential workers during a pandemic, and they sent a clear message that yes, despite the challenges it may cause, it is absolutely necessary to compensate essential works for the risks they take.”

"Many workers, like me and like Shelby, have been able to work remotely during this pandemic. We have relied on people like the workers who now seek to intervene in this suit to get through these challenging times," Wicks said. "We agree with Portland voters that their pay should reflect their extra effort and risk during these unprecedented times.”