In one evening, the Portland City Council made a decision to protect the public health of the city, and in doing so inflamed the two political poles. Pressure has been building as we all enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Jan. 3 meeting was the match that ignited what was to come. The council voted 9-0 to implement a temporary indoor mask mandate and 8-1 to repeal the state of emergency. These votes weren’t close calls – they were unanimous and a supermajority.

Within moments of the votes, the calls for protecting public health were immediately thrown out the door, and the conversation fractured over two polarized issues: medical freedom and hazard pay.

As discussed in the meeting, a state of emergency short-circuits normal rules so that government can respond quickly to an emergency. After two years of operating during a pandemic, government has now done that. It has now responded to that emergency in a myriad of ways, developing new protocols, installing new systems. We’ve spent two years developing the strategies and policies to adapt to and manage it. It was also worth noting that Portland was the only municipality in the state operating in a state of emergency long after others dissolved theirs.

It’s just like an emergency declaration after a destructive hurricane: You declare the emergency because of the damage that the hurricane caused, but when you’ve repaired enough power lines and restored water and done a few other things, you reach a point when you lift the emergency declaration.That doesn’t mean that everyone’s houses have been repaired, and that doesn’t mean that there won’t be more hurricanes. It just means that the immediate emergency is done.

What compounded this discussion is the citizen referendum-enacted hazard wage that took effect Jan. 1. Because the referendum language tied the hazard wage adjustment to a state of emergency declaration, if the council decided that the state of emergency had fulfilled its legal purpose and was no longer appropriate, the hazard wage adjustment would also disappear. Ultimately, the council believed (8-1 vote) that we are now at the point, two years in, with enough people vaccinated, educated and boosted, and with enough new protocols written and new equipment installed, that we can finally rescind the emergency declaration.

But are wages too low? Yes, absolutely. Should the minimum wage be raised to a living wage? Yes! Should there be hazard wages paid to workers in situations that are hazardous? Yes, and several councilors are currently working to do something about it outside of a state of emergency.

States of emergency are an imperfect solution to this problem, as demonstrated by situations like this. Instead, we should be addressing wages and labor issues more broadly and holistically. If we need to raise the minimum wage – and we do – we should simply raise the minimum wage. If we need to build in protections for workers in hazardous conditions, we should do that based on the qualitative and quantitative presence of hazards in the workplace, not the broad state of emergency declarations, which were never intended to be used this way.

We were advised by corporation counsel that the state of emergency had no legal grounds to continue, and we cannot manipulate policy to serve any interests, even ones we fully support. Moving forward, we heard a council that will prioritize working on strategies that will create more sustainable wage equity that will last beyond a hazard declaration. Less than 24 hours after the Jan. 3 vote, three-quarters of the councilors on the Housing & Economic Development Committee advocated for prioritizing and increasing the minimum wage in Portland, the night after the state of emergency vote.

We understand that many people feel upset and confused, angry and even betrayed. We know many of you think we’ve turned our backs on workers, and without the full context of what’s at play in this process, we completely understand why. Remember the past year of trust building we’ve been working on together? You know us and you know where our hearts are and what we are here to fight for. Yes, this vote was disappointing, but it is not the end of this conversation. It’s one step closer to raising the wage in the city to a livable wage every day, not just in a temporary state of emergency.

Email us, call us, go for walks with us and know that we will work with you to fix these systemic issues that affect all of Portland. Please realize that our humanity is a part of this just as much as yours, and humanity doesn’t operate in a binary. We are nuanced and complicated, we have layers and different perspectives – just like you. These issues might look like a “yes” or a “no,” but they simply aren’t. They are of the same nuance and complexity that we are.

The polarized lines of factions that are drawn today will be scars of partition tomorrow. This will not be the last significant vote of the council – maintaining relationships even when we disagree is crucial to getting important work done in the future.


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