The Seattle City Council voted 5-2 to end a $4-per-hour pay bump for grocery store workers meant to compensate them for the additional risks they have taken on during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original legislation was set to expire at the end of the COVID-19 civil emergency, which was declared by former Mayor Jenny Durkan in March 2020.
Councilmembers Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis and Sara Nelson as well as Council President Debora Juarez voted to pass legislation that would sunset the pay increase. Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales voted no.
Mayor Bruce Harrell will sign the legislation, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office confirmed Tuesday afternoon.
Public comment was dominated by people urging councilmembers to vote no on the ordinance. They cited the continued spread of COVID-19, the dangers that the virus poses to frontline workers and economic conditions such as high inflation and rising rents as reasons to maintain the higher wages.
Three representatives from grocery store industry groups testified to express support for the legislation. They noted the availability of vaccinations and strain on grocery store owners.
In her comments before the vote, Sawant noted that removing the requirement for hazard pay would disproportionately impact Black and Brown workers, and that the loss of $4 per hour would be a blow even to unionized grocery store workers who have recently won wage increases through a new contract, which takes effect at the end of August.
Morales had voted to end the requirement for hazard pay in December, the last time the legislation came up for a vote. However, she changed her position on Tuesday because of the high rates of transmission and because “people seem to think they don’t need to wear their masks anymore.”
The Seattle City Council approved the Hazard Pay ordinance in January 2021 in an attempt to boost wages for grocery workers who continued to keep stores open as the coronavirus pandemic raged. The first vaccines had been approved for emergency use but remained unavailable to most people. The ordinance impacted stores that had 500 or more employees worldwide and operated in facilities measuring more than 10,000 square feet or more than 85,000 square feet if 30 percent of the sales floor was dedicated to groceries.
The ordinance went into effect on Feb. 1, 2021.
Seattle moved early, but it was hardly alone: Several other cities and counties passed hazard pay ordinances in 2021 as well, although laws in neighboring communities such as Burien and unincorporated Snohomish County ended sooner. The fact that other cities were going to pass similar legislation was part of the original hazard pay legislation.
While the decisions by local governments to boost wages were cheered by unions that represent grocery store workers, they received criticism from industry representatives that said higher wages represented a burden on grocery stores. The Washington Food Industry Association argued on its website that hazard pay requirements hurt independent grocers that already operated on thin margins and that the policy could result in layoffs or price increases to deal with the additional costs.
According to the Seattle Times, Councilmember Kshama Sawant felt that the hazard pay ordinance didn’t go far enough. Grocery store workers were not the only ones putting their health on the line to perform public-facing jobs, she argued, saying that more industries should increase wages to compensate their employees for the additional risk.
In December 2021, councilmembers voted 8-0 to repeal the ordinance prior to the expiration of Durkan’s emergency declaration, the peg to which the original legislation was tied. In a political role reversal, Durkan vetoed the repeal, citing the transmissibility of the Omicron variant of the virus and rising case counts.
“Now is not the time to roll back the pay for these critical front-line workers,” Durkan said in a December 2021 statement. The City Council did not overturn the veto.
The potential repeal of the hazard pay ordinance came up again at the July 26 City Council meeting, but was quietly moved to Aug. 2. Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda were both absent from the July 26 meeting. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Mosqueda were absent from the Aug. 3 meeting.
According to Public Health – Seattle & King County, community spread of the coronavirus was at a “medium” level as of Aug. 1. The Public Health dashboard showed that King County reported an average of 695 cases per day, while Seattle reported a daily average of 255 cases.
Read more of the Aug. 3-9, 2022 issue.