As the COVID crisis continues, local lawmakers are trying to provide more compensation to workers at the front of the food industry. On Monday, January 25th, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance to give grocery workers in large stores a $ 4 an hour raise. Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to include this in the law soon.
The bill applies to those who fall under the Minimum Wage Act and work in supermarkets with 500+ employees worldwide and in stores larger than 10,000 square feet (or 85,000 square feet, which is 30 percent of the grocery retail space). Some examples of companies affected by the mandate are QFC, Fred Meyer, Costco, Metropolitan Market, and Safeway. Smaller specialty shops, farmers’ markets and convenience stores would be excluded.
Once the law is signed, the new wage obligation would take effect immediately and will apply until the end of the civil emergency declared by Durkan on March 3, 2020. However, councilors will consider changing after four months the “health, safety and economic risks of frontline work during the pandemic at the time” according to the regulation.
Councilor Teresa Mosqueda, who introduced the legislation, told Eater Seattle that the purpose is to “honor and respect” the grocery store staff during the pandemic as they remain at high risk of COVID-19 infection are. She cites an October 2020 study by the British Medical Journal that found that those who worked in grocery stores in Boston were five times more likely to test positive for COVID than others in customer-facing retail functions. More than 20,000 grocery store workers in the U.S. are infected or exposed to COVID, according to the UFCW, a union that represents retail workers. And here in Washington there was the recent alarming outbreak of more than 170 employees who tested positive for COVID at a Costco in Yakima County.
Mosqueda notes that although several grocery chains introduced a hazard payment last spring (about an additional $ 2 an hour), the bonuses didn’t last long and were mostly gone during the summer months. “The risk payment went away, but the risk itself didn’t,” she says.
However, Tammie Hetrick, President and CEO of Washington Food Industry, has contested the timing and need for the legislation, citing the economic impact on certain grocers. “This hero’s reward is unsustainable, on top of all the other costs grocers made with COVID over the past year,” she told Eater Seattle. “Given the added cost of unemployment insurance and other tax hikes this year, there is concern that it will lead to job losses and lower support for communities.” Hetrick has also cited the need to prioritize vaccine distribution for those in the grocery store over additional compensation.
Washington’s current vaccine distribution plan calls for workers in grocery stores in the near future. Within the last estimated time frame, those aged 50 and over in agriculture, food processing plants, and grocery stores should be eligible for a February reception. Those under 50 who work in grocery stores will likely get the vaccine by spring, but that all depends on the speed of a rollout, which has so far been slower than expected.
Meanwhile, Seattle lawmakers last year pushed the issue of hazard payment in the food and restaurant industries. In June last year, the council voted to pass legislation to help gig workers get extra money during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drivers for delivery services for grocery apps like Postmates, Instacart, and Grubhub receive an additional $ 2.50 per order. This measure was taken a few weeks after a separate bill was passed making sick pay for independent contractors mandatory.
Seattle is also joining other west coast cities that recently addressed the issue of hazard payment for grocery store workers. Berkeley recently put its own plan into action, Long Beach approved a $ 4 bill for “hero’s wages” (the final vote is scheduled for Feb.2), and Oakland and San Jose are due to vote on similar laws within a few weeks.