Workers at Portland Pie Co. in Portland's Old Port walked out of work on Sunday to tell managers their COVID-19 safety policies are too lax. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Workers at the Old Port location of Portland Pie Co. walked off the job on Sunday in what they said was a plea to get management’s attention to improve lax COVID-19 safety protocols.

Nine employees walked off the job mid-afternoon, leaving only the manager, two employees involved in the walkout said. Workers cashed out customers who were there, and the restaurant reopened for dinner, they said.

Their grievances included not being informed of positive COVID-19 cases among workers, with at least five employees testing positive over the past month but minimal communication to staff who might have been exposed to them, according to a note that one of the employees, bartender Ashley McAndrew, wrote to a restaurant manager. She also cited severe understaffing, poor organization including technology malfunctions and workers feeling unappreciated amid higher working hours.

The walkout came on the eve of the Portland City Council’s meeting Monday night, when it is scheduled to vote on whether to institute an indoor mask mandate in Portland and whether to continue a citywide state of emergency. Since Maine got rid of indoor mask mandates in spring 2021, restaurants have had their own policies for employees and guests. A few Portland restaurants now require proof of vaccination to eat inside.

McAndrew, who worked at the Old Port restaurant on and off for seven years, expressed her frustrations in an Instagram post on Monday in which she said she quit her job. She and other workers said staff shortages and fear of losing customers kept the restaurant from putting a “masks recommended” sign on the door.

“Despite voicing our concerns to corporate over the past few months, and even offering suggestions for change, it is not somewhere I feel safe or appreciated anymore,” she said in the Instagram post.

In a text she sent Sunday to a regional manager that was obtained by the Bangor Daily News, she said the walkout occurred because “we didn’t know how else to draw attention to what we’ve been screaming for months.”

The manager responded, “I’m sorry to hear that staff isn’t feeling appreciated. I’ll make sure to take all this into account when figuring out what to do going forward.”

Portland Pie reinstated its requirement for all employees to wear masks when Maine’s COVID-19 case count began to rise in recent weeks, CEO Jeff Perkins said in an email. The company owns five restaurants, including in Portland and Bangor, and has three franchises.

He said that Portland Pie complies with state and federal health recommendations for restaurants. He said that if an employee tests positive, the restaurant conducts immediate contract tracing. The company has dealt with positive COVID-19 cases several times, including closing the Bangor location temporarily in September 2020 and sanitizing it.

But some workers say the restaurant is not open enough with employees about exposures. Server Olivia Crowley, who walked out on Sunday and who has worked at the Portland location for five months, said a manager asked if she was vaccinated. Soon after, coworkers told her that a colleague she was exposed to had tested positive.

Crowley said her father and sister both have severe asthma, so she must be careful not to pass COVID-19 on to them. She also worries about customers getting infected. She said the company declined to compensate workers for at-home tests.

Lauren Saxon, who has tended bar at the restaurant for the past two years, said Portland Pie initially followed safety protocols at the beginning of the pandemic, but in the last six months it became difficult to get workers to wear masks, and some employees are unvaccinated.

Saxon, who was not part of the walkout, said the restaurant employees approached management to bring problems to their attention.

“We’d encourage restaurants, not just Portland Pie, to go back to increasing protocols to keep everyone safe,” Saxon said. “That’s our biggest concern.”