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Judge Upholds Seattle’s Hazard Pay Bill for Grocery Workers After Lawsuit Challenge

Grocery industry groups claimed the ordinance was unconstitutional, but a federal judge sided with the city

Apples, oranges, and other fruit displayed in bins in the produce section at a grocery store
Grocery store workers in Seattle got a $4-per-hour pay boost after a new ordinance passed in January.

On Thursday, March 18, a federal judge struck down a lawsuit filed by Pacific Northwest food industry groups challenging Seattle’s recent hazard pay law for grocery workers. Potential appeals aside, the $4-per-hour pay boost to employees at larger supermarket chains, such as QFC, Whole Foods, and Safeway, will stand as long as the city’s COVID-related emergency is in effect.

Seattle’s ordinance applies to those covered by the minimum wage law who work at stores with more than 500 employees worldwide and at locations bigger than 10,000-square-feet, following similar bills in California. Seattle’s city council passed the bill in January, but industry groups continued to push back against it. PCC Community Markets kicked up a fuss initially, before reversing course and applying hazard pay to all its locations. QFC blamed the pay boost mandate on its decision to close two locations in Seattle.

The legal challenge came from the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association, alleging that the hazard pay mandate unconstitutionally inserted itself into collective-bargaining agreements and showed favoritism toward employees at larger chains. But U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour was not moved by that argument, writing that grocery workers’ “heightened risk of contracting COVID-19” and record profits from large grocers during the pandemic gave the ordinance “reasonable grounds.”

The ruling comes the same week that grocery store employees became eligible to receive the vaccine in Washington state, and not long after the King County council officially its own hazard pay bill across the region. Seattle’s ordinance may be up for discussion again later this spring, since councilmembers will consider modifying it after four months of its implementation given “health, safety, and economic risks of frontline work during the pandemic at that time.”