They stock store shelves, deliver provisions, fix your home and cook and serve your meals.

They also work in classrooms and hospitals or for nonprofit agencies serving people with mental illness or substance use issues.

They’re among the workers caught in the crossfire of a fierce debate in Maine’s largest city: Does a minimum wage ordinance approved by voters on Nov. 3 mean that workers who must report to a Portland place of business during the pandemic should be paid at least $18 an hour starting this week?

“People who are working during the pandemic should be making more than enough, so they don’t have to worry about covering their basic necessities like rent and food, and then (risk) the potential of catching something, since they are more exposed than people who are working remotely,” said Jiwana Soleimani, who has worked during the pandemic at a Portland coffee shop for $12 an hour, the minimum wage in Maine.

People First Portland, a political group formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America that drafted the ordinance, says Portland employers need to pay hazard pay beginning this week equal to 1.5 times the current minimum wage of $12 an hour, or they run the risk of being sued for back pay. Portland’s attorney, however, has said the hazard pay provision does not take effect until 2022, leaving employers to decide which interpretation to believe.

Last week, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and five local organizations asked a judge to strike down the hazard pay provision, which prompted a group of workers to intervene in the case to defend the hazard pay provision.

Several workers contacted by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram would not speak on the record about what a pay increase to $18 an hour would mean for them, saying they worried about losing their jobs.

The newspaper filed a public records request for city communications regarding the minimum wage ordinance on Nov. 19, including correspondence from workers who want the hazard pay provision to be enforced. Those records were not available by press time, although the city proactively released dozens of emails received by concerned businesses on Nov. 10.

Soleimani has worked as a barista for a local coffee shop that has struggled to stay open during the pandemic. The 20-year-old South Portland resident said her base wage is $12 an hour. That can rise to $18 an hour with tips during the usually busy summer months.

“That was more than enough for me to cover my basic necessities,” Soleimani said. “But in the winter it was hard to cover my costs.”

And businesses have been anything but busy during the pandemic. In fact, Soleimani said she was laid off Nov. 15 because business is so slow. Yet she still believes workers like her should earn hazard pay of $18 an hour starting this week because they are risking their own health during a pandemic.

Caleb Horton, who works at Whole Foods, at his home in Portland on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Caleb Horton, 25, earns $15 an hour filling online grocery orders at Whole Foods for customers unable or unwilling to do their own in-store shopping during the pandemic. Horton believes workers like him should receive hazard pay beginning this week because they’re constantly exposed to the public and at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.

Horton and a co-corker have intervened in the chamber’s lawsuit, which seeks to strike down the requirement.

“The pandemic has made things really scary for a lot of the people working there,” Horton said. “It’s hard to go into work and not know if you’re going to get sick.”

Horton said he recently moved back to Portland and currently lives with his parents. But the additional $3 an hour would not only acknowledge the added risks of his job; it could also help him pay off debt and pay for his own place.

“It would mean a lot to me,” he said. “It would really help me get back on my feet and set down roots here in Portland. It would definitely help me to acquire the savings I need to start paying off my student loans and help me get into an apartment.”

Anthony Emerson outside the Shaw’s Northgate in Portland after his shift on Wednesday. Emerson has worked at the grocery store for over six years. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Anthony Emerson, 26, has been working at the Northgate Shaw’s supermarket in Portland for the last 6 1/2 years. He said he makes $12.35 an hour and the company also offers other benefits, such as a 401(k) retirement plan, health insurance and paid time off.

But the job has only gotten more difficult because of the pandemic and the way that public health measures such as wearing masks have become politicized. He relayed a story of an unmasked customer calling him and his co-workers “scared little girls” for wearing masks.

“It’s been incredibly stressful,” Emerson said. “Customers are on edge. Managers are on edge. My co-workers are on edge. I’m on edge.”

As of Nov. 25, Emerson said he had not heard from his boss about whether he would be getting a raise because of the ongoing coronavirus emergency, though he’s optimistic his pay will go up.

Spokespeople for Shaw’s and other grocers, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, did not respond to a request for information. But a spokesperson for the Hannaford supermarket chain said the company began paying the hazard wage last week.

Emerson said it’s “disgusting” that the city would “flagrantly violate the will of the voters” by issuing a legal interpretation that differed from what proponents intended and what voters expected.

Emerson, a member of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America who ran unsuccessfully for school board this fall, said a raise to $18 an hour would give him more financial independence. And he believes putting more money into workers’ pockets will benefit local businesses that are currently struggling.

“Oh, my God. It would provide me with so much more financial comfort,” said Emerson, who has a mild form of autism and lives with his mother. “That financial flexibility could help me find a place so I can move out.”

Other workers declined to be named in this story out of fear of losing their jobs.

A 19-year-old carpenter’s apprentice making $14.50 an hour plus other benefits said hazard pay is needed to account for the risks he takes by showing up at work sites, where mask compliance is spotty. The additional pay would allow him to save some money, help pay off his vehicle and possibly take one or two online classes, in addition to working.

A part-time staffer at the University of Southern Maine says she is immunocompromised and would likely end up in the hospital if she contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. On top of that, she has student loans associated with her undergraduate degree in ceramics and education and a master’s in studio art.

“I am working three jobs – I’m struggling to survive,” the 26-year-old said. “(A raise) would be incredible. If I was making $18 an hour for a short period of time I could actually start saving money. I currently have absolutely no savings, which is really scary.”

She blames the city, not USM or drafters of the ordinance, for creating confusion around when the hazard pay provision takes effect.

“It really did seem like everyone thought this was going to happen in December,” she said. “All the City Council did is sow gigantic amounts of confusion.”


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