by Ben Adlin
Thousands of frontline workers at large grocery stores in Seattle will soon see a $4-per-hour raise under emergency hazard-pay legislation passed Monday, Jan. 25, by the City Council. Labor leaders hope the new rule will inspire similar action around Puget Sound, including neighboring Burien and unincorporated King County.
The increase requires Seattle grocery businesses with 500 or more total employees to raise workers’ hourly wages by $4 in recognition of the higher risk of contracting COVID-19 involved in their work. The measure does not apply to small businesses, convenience stores, or farmers markets.
The City Council approved the bill on an 8–0 vote, allowing it to take effect as soon as the mayor signs it. That’s expected to happen next Wednesday, Feb. 3, Durkan’s staff told the Emerald in an email.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, lead sponsor of the bill, called hazard pay for grocery workers “the least we can do to recognize the dangers they face when going to work, including unmasked customers, customers who are coughing and not respecting social distancing rules, and cleaning of commonly used surfaces.”
A study out of Boston published in October 2020 found grocery store employees to be at particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19, with workers in customer-facing roles five times more likely to test positive than those in other positions. Nearly half (46%) said they were unable to consistently practice social distancing at work.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meanwhile, advises all Americans to limit visiting grocery stores in person due to the risk of contracting the virus.
“Grocery store workers are sacrificing their health to make sure shelves are stocked, but we should not treat grocery store workers as sacrificial,” Mosqueda said in a statement. Many grocers, she added, began giving workers hazard pay during the early months of the pandemic but stopped after only a few months.
Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 (UFCW 21), which helped lead the drive for the hazard-pay measure, said large grocers have done good business during the pandemic, posting millions of dollars in additional profits and seeing stock prices boom.
“I think the logic behind it, with hazard pay and why we’re pushing it with grocery, is we see this combination of both the hazard and also the record profits,” he said. “We know that these grocery stores, because many of them are publicly traded, are making record profits.”
That’s one reason why smaller grocers and other types of businesses — including the corner stores and independent shops that serve much of South Seattle — aren’t included in the new legislation, Mizrahi said. Those companies aren’t necessarily doing as well, and in many cases, they’re struggling and might not be able to afford the additional pay for workers.
All told, Mizrahi estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 grocery workers could see wage increases under the measure, including both union and nonunion employees. Most of the eligible workers who are UFCW members, he said, make between minimum wage (currently $16.39 at large businesses) and about $22 per hour.
The additional pay is scheduled to last until the end of Washington’s ongoing pandemic stay-at-home orders, although the measure will be re-evaluated by the City in four months.
Larger grocers have opposed the legislation, arguing that the added costs will be a problem for their bottom line.
“If our grocers have to pay additional hazard pay, they will likely have to cut elsewhere given the low margins for grocery,” Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, said in a statement to the City Council, arguing that the Council should prioritize vaccines — not “hero pay” — to grocery employees. Under the current vaccine rollout plan, grocery workers under 50 years old won’t be eligible to receive a vaccine until April at the earliest.
The Washington Food Industry Association said in the statement that grocers “continue to invest in efforts to keep their employees safe, ranging from providing PPE, increased costs for cleaning and line monitoring, enforcing face masks at entry, installing plexiglass and other safety measures.”
Some grocers also provide a “safety bonus” to workers, the industry group added, “although at a lower rate and have been spending on morale boosting items (free lunches, company swag, etc.).”
As Seattle’s legislation notes, a number of California municipalities have passed or announced similar legislation to require grocery stores to provide local workers hazard pay of between $4 and $5 extra per hour during the pandemic.
Mosqueda, the councilmember who championed the hazard pay bill, told the Emerald that the legislation “was designed so that we covered the most workers who put their health on the line and the health of their families at risk to keep our community healthy, fed, and safe.”
“There’s more work to do to ensure all vulnerable workers in Seattle are supported,” she said in an email, “and my office is working to ensure all essential workers have rapid and equitable access to vaccines.”
The City Council has already passed legislation during the pandemic, raising pay for some other types of workers. In June of last year, members approved a bill requiring certain food-delivery apps, such as Instacart, Doordash, and Postmates, to pay drivers at least $2.50 extra per order in “premium pay” during the pandemic. The City also passed legislation requiring rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft to pay drivers Seattle’s minimum wage or higher. And for hospitality workers who have lost work due to the pandemic, earlier this month the Council announced a $2.17 million fund to provide direct cash payments.
Mizrahi said his group and others are working with elected officials in other cities and counties across the region to expand hazard pay to other grocery workers, such as those in Burien, unincorporated King County, and Bainbridge Island.
“We’re going to any city or county council that will listen and [are] trying to pass it,” he said. “We have a very robust effort in Burien, and I think we’re hopeful that we’ll get moving with that on Monday.”
The union is also “hopeful” about its conversations with King County officials, Mizrahi said, which could extend hazard pay to grocery workers in unincorporated parts of the county, such as White Center.
While Mizrahi said he’s reassured to have a vaccine in sight, he expects it could still be months before grocery workers under 50 are vaccinated. “The best way that the community can show their support,” he said, “is by wearing a mask and keeping their distance.”
Amy Fields, a grocery worker who testified before the City Council at Monday’s meeting, said the hazard-pay measure “would show that the city has deep respect for the workers who go to work every day to make sure our communities are fed and have access to their most basic needs.”
“Employer profits have continued to skyrocket, but our employers are not rewarding the workers on the front line risking their lives every day when they go to work,” Fields said. “Please pass hazard pay for front line grocery workers. It would be an acknowledgment of the part we have played in creating their windfall profits, it would be a vote of confidence in our hard work, and it would show us that you care. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Joe Mizrahi’s title at UFCW 21. The Emerald has corrected the error.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
Featured image by Russ Allison Loar via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
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