Sydney Avitia-Jacques, an organizer at the Southern Maine Workers' Center, speaks during a hazard pay rally at Portland City Hall on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Restaurant workers in Portland saddled with enforcing a city mask mandate are demanding hazard pay, citing burnout after years on the frontlines of a pandemic that’s only gotten worse.

Risks to restaurant employees have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic and especially amid the omicron wave. Many have jobs that require them to interact with maskless people almost daily, even as Portland and the rest of Maine see an unprecedented wave of coronavirus cases. For this reason, they believe they should continue receiving hazard pay.

Portland workers briefly received hazard pay between Jan. 1 and Jan. 13, while the city remained in a state of emergency. But that ended when the City Council repealed the order on Jan. 3. In its place, the councils adopted a city-wide mask mandate for indoor spaces.

“The city-wide mask mandate is really important,” said Sydney Avitia-Jacques, an organizer for the Southern Maine Workers’ Center who worked as a food delivery driver in 2020 and 2021. “But we know that enforcement is falling mostly on workers who are already in a really uncomfortable position.”

While most patrons adhere to masking rules, it has been harder than ever to get some to do so amid the omicron wave and the city’s most recent mask mandate, said Cameron Ramich, 25, a bartender at Saltwater Grille in South Portland.

“At what cost to my mental health do I have to keep fighting this battle of telling someone to put their mask on almost two years into this pandemic,” Ramich asked.

Those risks, among other factors, have led numerous restaurant and bar workers to leave the industry during the pandemic, causing a labor shortage that makes employees who stay need to do more with fewer resources.

Those divisions are largely why dozens of residents protested at Portland City Hall on Tuesday demanding the return of hazard pay for employees in the city. Hazard pay raises the minimum wage in Portland to $19.50 per hour from $13 an hour. The city tied hazard pay to states of emergency in an order passed in 2020.


Victoria Pelletier, the only city councilor to vote against lifting Portland’s state of emergency, said restaurant and bar employees had been tasked with some of the most demanding jobs of the pandemic.

“We’re saying that we expect to get all these things from you,” Pelletier said. “But we’re not investing in you financially.”

Hazard pay could return without a state of emergency though. There will be a first-reading of reinstating hazard pay as an amendment sponsored by Pelletier to a renewal of the city’s mask mandate on Feb. 7 with a vote expected on Feb. 28, she said. 

Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub General Manager Troy Hanna said operating a restaurant during the pandemic had been difficult. People have become far less willing to want to put a mask on over the course of the pandemic. It has also been especially hard to find kitchen workers, he said.

“We’re constantly battling how to keep our kitchen guys from losing their sanity,” Hanna said. “Especially over the summer, with maximizing being open as much as we can without running them into the ground.”

While acknowledging that it was a difficult time for many of Portland’s restaurants amid the pandemic and staffing troubles, providing workers benefits and high pay is an effective strategy to avoid turnover, said Marisa Lewiecki, co-owner of Mr. Tuna, a sushi bar at Portland Public Market.

The restaurant currently has around 10 employees but grows its staff in the summer. It began offering employees several benefits this year, including health insurance, life insurance, and short-term disability insurance that covers coronavirus infections, she said. It also offers paid time off and sick leave.

“We’ve found ways to make it work: whether through raising our prices a little bit or just being mindful of our costs,” Lewiecki said. “I think there are ways you can make it work.”