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Portland Whole Foods workers oppose Chamber lawsuit seeking to halt hazard pay as approved by voters

According to a referendum passed in November, workers were to receive a minimum wage increase of time and a half during an emergency like the pandemic.
Credit: AP

PORTLAND, Maine — On Monday, attorneys for two Portland Whole Foods workers filed an opposition to a motion by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to permanently invalidate the emergency hazard pay provision approved by Portland voters in November 2020.

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

“The Chamber’s position is shockingly anti-democratic,” Leighton said. “They are asking the court to rule that voters can’t have a say on important issues like the local minimum wage, even though the law guarantees voters that right. The Chamber is clearly afraid of the voters of Portland: they lost at the ballot box, and they are now trying to undo the will of the voters in the courts.”

According to the referendum passed in November, workers were 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.

The workers' attorneys say the Chamber’s motion not only seeks to throw out the hazard pay provision, but also challenges the validity of the citizen initiative process by asking the Court to rule that voters can only pass initiatives on a small list of subjects.

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

"These workers have bravely and selflessly worked on site at the Whole Foods market in Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their efforts have made it possible for the residents of Portland to buy food while they wait for this once-in-a-century public health emergency to come to an end. While many people have been able to work safely from home during this public health crisis, they have not," the attorneys wrote in a press release. "Their jobs require them to take on major safety risks every day for themselves and their loved ones, including the risk of serious sickness and even death."

"Portland voters clearly recognized the disproportionate burden placed on low-wage workers who have continued to report to work in-person throughout this global pandemic and spoke clearly when they passed the hazard pay provision by a 3-to-2 margin (more than 62% in favor)," the attorneys continued. "These workers are now fighting to stop the Chamber of Commerce not only from overturning the will of the voters and denying them their well-earned hazard pay, but also from restricting all city voters’ rights to pass citizen initiatives."

RELATED: Portland Chamber and five businesses file lawsuit against city

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 originally filed suit against the city of Portland in superior court on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

"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.

Chamber officials said the lawsuit comes from uncertainty regarding the referendum passed by Portland voters in November.

NEWS CENTER Maine has reached out to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce for comment on this latest motion but have not yet heard back.

RELATED: Supporters thrilled with Portland voters' approval of $15 minimum wage