As the COVID crisis continues, local lawmakers are looking to give more compensation to workers on the frontlines of the food industry. On Monday, January 25, the Seattle city council unanimously passed a new ordinance to give a $4-per-hour pay boost to grocery workers at large stores, and Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to sign it into law soon.
The bill applies to those covered by the minimum wage law who work at supermarkets with more than 500 employees worldwide and at stores bigger than 10,000-square-feet (or 85,000-square-feet with 30 percent of the space devoted to food retail). Some examples of businesses impacted by the mandate include QFC, Fred Meyer, Costco, Metropolitan Market, and Safeway. Smaller specialty shops, farmers markets, and convenience stores would be exempt.
Once signed into law, the new pay requirement would go into effect immediately and is intended to last until the end of the civil emergency, which was proclaimed by Durkan on March 3, 2020. But councilmembers will consider modifying it after four months in consideration of the “health, safety, and economic risks of frontline work during the pandemic at that time,” according to the ordinance.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who introduced the legislation, tells Eater Seattle that the purpose is to “honor and respect” the work grocery store employees are doing during the pandemic as they continue to face a high risk of COVID-19 infection. She cites a British Medical Journal study from October 2020, which found those who worked at grocery stores in Boston were five times more likely to test positive for COVID than others in customer-facing retail roles. According to the UFCW, a union that represents retail employees, more than 20,000 grocery store workers across the U.S. have been infected or exposed to COVID. And here in Washington, there was the recent alarming outbreak of more than 170 employees testing positive for COVID at a Yakima County Costco.
Mosqueda notes that even though several grocery chains instituted hazard pay last spring (around $2 extra per hour), the bonuses didn’t last long and were mostly gone by the summer months. “The hazard pay went away, but the hazard itself didn’t,” she says.
But Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry has pushed back against the timing and need for the legislation, citing the economic impact it may have on certain grocers. “This hero pay is not sustainable on top of all the other costs grocers have incurred over the last year with COVID,” she tells Eater Seattle. “With the added costs of unemployment insurance and other tax increases this year, the concern is that this will result in job losses and reduced support for the communities.” Hetrick has also cited the need to prioritize vaccine distribution for those in food retail above additional compensation.
Washington’s current plan for vaccine distribution does include grocery store workers in the near future. Within the most recent estimated timeline, people 50 years and older in agriculture, food processing plants, and grocery stores should be eligible to receive in February. Those under 50 who work at grocery stores will likely receive the vaccine by spring, but that all depends on the speed of a rollout that has so far been slower than expected.
In the meantime, Seattle lawmakers have continued to press the issue of hazard pay in the food and restaurant industry over the past year. Last June, the council voted to pass legislation that would help gig workers receive extra money during the COVID-19 pandemic, with drivers for food app delivery services such as Postmates, Instacart, and Grubhub getting an extra $2.50 per order. That action came a few weeks after a separate bill was passed mandating sick pay for independent contractors.
Seattle also joins other West Coast cities that have taken up the issue of hazard pay to grocery store workers recently. Berkeley recently moved forward on its own plan, Long Beach approved a $4 “hero pay” bill (with a final vote scheduled for February 2), and Oakland and San Jose are scheduled to vote on similar legislation within weeks.
- Seattle Council Bill 119990 [Office of the City Clerk]