A Whole Foods associate sanitizes a shopping cart in Portland. As with other large grocery chains, Whole Foods is only granting paid sick time to employees who have received positive tests for the coronavirus, alarming workers who note the scarce availability of tests statewide. Credit: Troy Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Workers at Whole Foods Market are striking back against a lawsuit filed by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to overturn a voter-approved minimum wage-ordinance that would grant hazard pay to essential workers in the city during the pandemic.

On Thursday, attorneys representing Caleb Horton and Mario Roberge-Reyes, two workers at Whole Foods in Portland, filed a motion to intervene in the Chamber’s lawsuit, which asks a judge to either strike down the city ordinance or postpone its implementation until at least 2022.


The motion claims that Horton and Roberge-Reyes have “reported to work in person for months during this global pandemic, at great risk to their health and the health of their loved ones.” The legal motion asks a judge to “enforce the will of the people” and declare that they are entitled to compensation for their in-person work beginning this weekend.

Horton earns $15 an hour and Roberge-Reyes earns $15.40 an hour. Each is entitled to a raise on Dec. 5, 2020, when the hazard pay-provision takes effect, according to the motion filed in Cumberland County Superior Court on Thursday by the law firm Johnson, Webbert & Garvan LLP, which has offices in Portland and Augusta.

Portland voters overwhelmingly supported a November ballot initiative that would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage from $12 to $15 by 2024, beginning with increases in 2022. A provision in the ordinance also requires employers to pay at least 1.5 times the rate of the minimum wage to employees working non-remote jobs during declared states of emergency.

In closed-door sessions, the City of Portland determined after its passage that it would not enforce the ordinance until Jan. 1, 2022 — a decision based on a legal interpretation that some lawyers dispute.

The Portland Chamber of Commerce filed a suit against the City of Portland on Tuesday, with its CEO Quincy Hentzel arguing that the ordinance “exceeds the scope of legislative powers reserved to municipal voters under the Maine constitution.”

Shelby Leighton, one of three Johnson, Webbert & Garvan attorneys representing the Whole Foods workers, countered that the Chamber “is trying to block the unmistakable will of the people of Portland.”

“Voters weighed the pros and cons and then sent a clear message that yes, despite the increase in costs for employers, it is absolutely necessary to compensate essential workers for the grave sacrifices they are making for the good of us all. This is what democracy looks like,” Leighton said.

Short of hazard pay, large supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Hannaford Brothers Company and Shaw’s Supermarkets offered workers unofficial “bonus wages” — an extra dollar or two an hour — in the early months of the pandemic. Bonus pay ended by late June.

Profits have soared at supermarket chains during the pandemic, with not much going back to workers. Whole Foods, owned by e-commerce giant Amazon, has tripled its profits in 2020’s third quarter, and has projected $380 billion in revenues by the end of the year. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth exceeds $200 billion, jumping more than $90 billion since the pandemic in March.

Supermarket workers have complained that they are at risk of infection as coronavirus cases soar in the state, noting that while shoppers are required to wear masks in the store, the businesses do not deny entry to maskless customers.

Attorney Valerie Wicks, of Johnson, Webbert & Garvan, said that she agrees with the 62 percent of Portland voters who supported November’s ballot initiative to raise wages for low-income workers during the pandemic.

“The pay for these frontline workers should reflect their extra effort and sacrifice during this unprecedented public health emergency,” Wicks said.