Attorney Shelby Leighton quoted in the news fighting for rights of grocery and other frontline workers for COVID-19 hazard pay

A lawsuit challenging the legality of a voter referendum that requires employers to pay Portland workers more during states of emergency is expected to reach the courts on Wednesday.

Attorneys representing two Portland Whole Foods workers intervening in the suit called the Chamber of Commerce’s legal challenge “shockingly anti-democratic.” They argue that under state law, Portland does have authority to enforce the ordinance unless otherwise “expressly denied” by the Maine Legislature, and warn that striking it down could open the door to invalidate other citizen initiatives passed by voters.

Horton and Roberge-Reyes have had to isolate themselves from friends and family due to working at Whole Foods and “have experienced significant stress and anxiety” knowing that their work puts them at increased risk of infecting family and others they live with, according to attorneys from Johnson Webbert & Garvan, a Maine law firm in Portland and Augusta representing the workers.

“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,” said Shelby Leighton of Johnson Webbert & Garvan.

Read the full Bangor Daily News article here.

The workers argued that voters do have the power to create an emergency provision like this one, and the hazard pay provision should have taken effect shortly after the election as most people expected. Their attorneys also suggested that striking down this provision could have an impact on other ordinances passed by citizen referendum.

“By asking the court to invalidate the hazard pay provision, plaintiffs are swimming against the tide. … The purpose of citizen initiatives is to encourage participatory democracy,” attorney Shelby Leighton said. “Plaintiffs are asking this court to undermine that important purpose by taking a hatchet to the entire system of municipal direct democracy and taking out any number of citizen initiatives with it, all so they can override a law that was resoundingly approved by Portland voters.”

Read the full Portland Press Herald article here.