I spend many nights a week working in close contact with hundreds of people. Officially, my store limits the number of customers, but everyone can see that this is regularly exceeded. I run into shoppers traveling from other states and those who pull their mask down to talk. Even lunch is no respite. Employees pack into the break rooms to unmask and eat, because with sub-zero temperatures outside, there’s no safe place to eat.

Almost every week, often more than once, I get a text: “Your location has additional confirmed cases of COVID-19. Your health and safety is our top priority.”

I try not to worry that I’m infected, too. My employer will notify me only if I were in prolonged close contact with the person, but who is keeping track? And though case numbers rise, business continues as usual. Just the other day, a worker threw up into their mask, afraid leaving early would cost them their job. How long until one of my friends dies?

Portland’s essential workers know we’re not safe. We would be isolated at home if we could, but we have to pay for medication, elder care, food for our children, tuition and rent. We are also proud to be on the front lines keeping Portland’s residents fed and healthy.

Realizing the sacrifices we make every day, workers organized and put the question to voters: Should essential workers be paid more during the pandemic? The debate played out across media, workplaces and kitchen tables. Some businesses said it was too sudden and they would not survive if they had to pay hazard pay. Workers emphasized the risks they were taking to keep businesses running, and asked why they should bear the economic burden of the pandemic. More than 40,000 Portlanders voted on Question A, and despite over $100,000 spent by business groups to oppose the question, nearly two-thirds of the people who cast a ballot voted to give essential workers a raise.

We are all hurting during this time, including small businesses. Businesses must either internalize the costs of the pandemic, find help or find a way to pass them on. Until we organized to convince voters that the entire community should bear the burden of the pandemic, workers were the path of least resistance, so many businesses had placed the costs of the pandemic on us.

Steven DiMillo, the owner of a pier, restaurant and marina on Portland’s waterfront, argued in a commentary in this paper Feb. 3 that his businesses can’t survive if they have to temporarily pay their workers a few more dollars an hour. This was the same argument employed to stop 2018’s earned paid leave campaign and past minimum-wage increases. Yet, DiMillo’s and other small businesses in Portland have not only managed to survive those policy changes, but also to thrive. Dozens of small businesses across Portland like Otto Pizza, Rosemont Market, Mexicali Blues, the Proper Cup and Fresh Approach Meat Market are demonstrating today that it is possible to pay workers hazard pay without going out of business. And if businesses need their own relief, I will testify, lobby and organize for them. And I will pay a few cents more for my meal when I go out.

That said, the bottom line is that the voters of Portland clearly and overwhelmingly decided that during the pandemic, my co-workers and I deserve a wage that compensates us for risking our lives. The city has ignored that decision. That is not democracy.

But if you are unwilling to listen to the voters, I say to the mayor, my councilors and Steve DiMillo: Come work with me at Whole Foods for a few weeks. Work beside the workers who you are betraying, risk your life as we do and see if you still feel that we do not deserve the wages the people of Portland overwhelmingly voted for us to receive.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.