Growing up in the Yakima Valley, Seattle City Council President Lorena González often saw the inequities in the food system at a very close range. She is from a migrant farmworker family, where she worked in the fields of Central Washington picking cherries starting at age 8. González and her siblings would work in the morning, attend school, then go back out into the fields to help their parents. She recalls picking fruit that was shipped to wealthier parts of the state, like Seattle, even as her own family struggled to access basic necessities.
“Because we were migrant farmworkers, we didn’t have access to water [González’s family had to bring their own jugs of water while living at the worker camps]. We didn’t have the right to rest breaks, or lunches. We didn’t have the right to stop work because it was over 100 degrees in the summer,” she says. “It fueled my interest in wanting to represent workers who are taken advantage of because of the lack of positional power.”
After law school, González worked at a firm that represented plaintiffs in wage theft and anti-discrimination cases, as well as victims of police misconduct. In 2016, she became the first Latinx elected to serve on the Seattle City Council, and is currently City Council President. On February 3, González officially announced her mayoral candidacy, bringing some of the values from her past experience to her platform.
There will be many issues to address in Seattle’s restaurant industry, even if COVID is under better control by the time the next mayor takes office. During the first six months of the pandemic, nearly 20 percent of restaurants in the city closed permanently, according to a survey by the Washington Hospitality Association, and more than 200,000 hospitality workers lost their jobs at the beginning of the crisis (though some of those jobs have since returned). González says she wants to not just codify, but expand protections for workers at the lower end of the pay scale in restaurants and help support small businesses as part of any future pandemic recovery plan.
Among some of González’s proposed solutions are making some of the recent economic stopgap measures permanent, including a 15 percent cap on third-party delivery app fees that the city implemented in 2020 and expedited permits for street plaza seating. González also says she’d look to mirror a pilot program that Boston recently implemented.
The Boston fund works to provide wage reimbursements to restaurants that retain or rehire employees who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. It also aims to address wage disparities by committing restaurants to a $20 per hour minimum wage by 2026. Though she isn’t suggesting accelerating the current minimum wage schedule in Seattle, González wants to incentivize restaurants who are so-called “high road employers.” As detailed by the American Sustainable Business Council, that is a term referring to employers who, among other qualities, pay a livable and fair wage, provide family-friendly benefits, prioritize health and safety, and invest in employee growth and development.
González’s legislative record includes leading the way on a bill that requires employers to give employees schedules 14 days in advance, gives employees the “right to rest” in declining shifts separated by less than 10 hours, and mandates that businesses offer additional hours to qualified internal candidates before hiring outside help. “Protecting restaurant workers on the lower spectrum of earning is so important because they are the ones who literally make the restaurant function and work,” she says.
González has also witnessed some of the impacts that the pandemic has had on the hospitality industry directly: Her husband, Cameron Williams, has been a restaurant manager for almost 20 years, working for acclaimed chefs such as Daisley Gordon and Ethan Stowell. He most recently worked at West Seattle destination Il Nido, but is now out of a job as the restaurant is temporarily closed. “He currently finds himself on employment like so many thousands of other restaurant workers in the city,” González says, adding that her recovery plan would try to address the needs of those out of work or underemployed, balanced with how to get restaurants in the city back on their feet.
González has found some opposition in the business community, though. She supported the much-debated “JumpStart” tax that targets larger corporations in the city, with the intention of using the revenue to address community needs, with more than $200 million in 2022 earmarked for affordable housing efforts, the Equitable Development Initiative, and economic recovery. In 2020, she also advocated for steep cuts and an overhaul to the Seattle Police Department, which was heavily criticized by groups like the Downtown Seattle Association. Most recently, she co-sponsored the hazard pay bill for local grocery workers, which larger chains, such as Kroger-owned QFC, have pushed back on.
But González insists many of her policy proposals would help smaller business owners. In addition to making the third-party app fee caps permanent, she would look to extend the moratorium on small business evictions. She’d also like to see Seattle’s “Healthy Streets” initiative integrate a commerce element, perhaps allowing food trucks to set up shop on some of the closed blocks.
On the subject of rent relief and tax cuts, González is a little more vague, saying she wants to “advocate at the state and federal level for additional resources,” while looking at extending the deferral of business and occupancy (B&O) taxes and utility payments for small businesses. But she says wants to make the structure of B&O taxes more equitable overall for struggling restaurants.
“I know exactly how tight the restaurant industry is — it’s a family,” she says. “Chef owners and workers cherish each other, and I think we can find a lot of common ground in figuring out policies and programs that can really help to elevate both the business side of the equation and the human needs side.”