Grocery store workers have been on the front lines of serving our local neighborhoods for generations. We show up every day and serve our customers so they can purchase the food and other products they need to use every day of their lives.
When COVID-19 hit our region 53 weeks ago, it was unclear what the virus was and what needed to be implemented to allow our stores to remain open and safe. Our union immediately reached out to the grocery store corporations, seeking agreements about how to proceed. Workers were the source of many of the reform ideas that were put into place. These agreements included two weeks of additional paid sick leave for COVID-19-related issues, additional flexibility on work schedules to help with day care and children being home from school, improvements to store safety, breaks to allow workers to wash their hands and clean work areas and many more. There was also a $2 per hour hazard pay implemented by most employers for a few months.
As the pandemic continued toward the summer, information about the sheer scale of the virus and resulting infections and deaths grew. Unfortunately, the grocery store companies that were making hundreds of millions in profits as a result of the pandemic decided to discontinue the $2 per hour hazard pay for grocery store workers — the very workers making their profits possible by facing risks every day. That was an obscene decision and it made workers feel like we were not valued.
The summer and fall came and went. Despite our ongoing efforts to advocate for enforcement of safety measures and for the reinstatement of hazard pay, grocery store workers continue to face risks and exposure throughout their shifts every day, without the surety or pay to back them up. In some cases, customers have refused to wear masks and were very confrontational. In some overcrowded stores, workers are put in the position of trying to implement social distancing, often without success. We are being asked to step up and to do more with less staff.
For over a year now, workers’ stress has continued to increase and build on itself month after month. The level of stress is harmful to our health and well-being. And our stress does not stay at work: We worry about bringing the virus home. What happens when we come home and get close to and hug our children and family members? Are we passing the virus to our loved ones?
We are worn out. Adding insult to this injury, employers refuse our ongoing requests to redeem themselves and re-instate hazard pay.
One way to foster goodwill and care for on-the-ground workers would be for the employers to pay us the hazard pay we need, deserve and work for. That is why we support the $4 per hour hazard pay ordinances by the Seattle and Burien city councils.
The difference that this will make is huge. Many of us make only a dollar or two above minimum wage as we are being asked to do so much more and face COVID-19 risks daily. We deserve more pay — it is that simple.
These companies have pocketed billions in profits because of the pandemic. They need to share some of that financial security with the ones who make the stores run every day, just like they have shared their profits with their stockholders. Beyond the practical impact the hazard pay will have on our pocketbooks, it will also provide some emotional relief because it will be a sign of respect. It will say we matter and that our sacrifice has some value. Working in our stores today is not what it was before the pandemic, and we deserve compensation for this change.
In addition, while the vaccine is getting rolled out, we need our workplaces to be made safer. Please, everyone, do your part and wear masks that properly cover your mouth and nose to help prevent the spread of the virus. Please limit your trips to the store, and when you do come in, please limit your time in the store to reduce possible exposure. We all want our stores to be as safe as possible for all of us — workers and shoppers alike. Thanks for all you do.
And thanks to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and other members of the Seattle City Council for pushing this ordinance; thanks to Councilmember Kevin Schilling and other members of the Burien City Council for pushing this ordinance. You are making a difference in the lives of thousands of grocery store workers in these two cities. We hope that more cities take up this call and pass hazard pay for the workers in their communities.
See a news update on this story here.
Elaine Lyon is a UFCW 21 grocery store worker at Safeway in West Seattle, where she has worked for three years.
Joe Mizrahi is the UFCW 21 secretary-treasurer.
UFCW 21 is the largest private-sector union in Washington, with over 46,000 workers in grocery stores, health care, retail and other industries. The UFCW 21 mission is to be a powerful union fighting for economic, political and social justice in workplaces and communities. UFCW 21 is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is a labor union of 1.3 million people in the U.S. and Canada. More info: http://ufcw21.org
Read more in the Jan. 27 - Feb. 2, 2021 issue.