Essential Workers Oppose Chamber of Commerce Request to Strike Down Pandemic Hazard Pay and Obliterate Citizen Initiative Powers

On Monday, January 11, 2021, attorneys for two Whole Foods workers filed an opposition to a motion by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to permanently invalidate the emergency hazard pay provision overwhelmingly approved by Portland voters.

The Chamber’s motion not only seeks to throw out the hazard pay provision, but also challenges the validity of the entire citizen initiative process by asking the Court to rule that voters can only pass initiatives on a small list of relatively unimportant subjects. If the Court accepts the Chamber’s anti-democratic reading of the Maine Constitution, it could have the effect of invalidating citizen initiatives passed by voters in Portland and cities around the state in the November 2020 election (and even in years past). The workers’ response explains that the Chamber’s anti-democratic reading of the Constitution is not based in the law and would obliterate the direct democracy rights of city voters in Maine.

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. 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.

As COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed recently, particularly in Cumberland County, more than 13 employees of the Portland Whole Foods market have tested positive for COVID-19. But, despite working for one of the richest companies in the world, Whole Foods has refused to pay these essential workers the hazard pay wage overwhelmingly approved by Portland voters on November 3, 2020.
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 martin (more than 62% in favor). 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

“The Chamber’s position is shockingly anti-democratic,” said Shelby Leighton, attorney for 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.”
Attorneys Shelby H. Leighton, Valerie Z. Wicks, and David G. Webbert of the law firm Johnson, Webbert & Garvan represent the workers in this lawsuit. Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, LLP, has offices in Portland and Augusta and is the leading workers’ and civil rights law firm in Northern New England.