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Whole Foods vs. Seattle Mayor McGinn: Who’s right?

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and Whole Foods remain at odds over wages and benefits at a proposed West Seattle development. (Fuller Sears Architects)

The growing battle between Whole Foods Market and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn over a West Seattle project continues, with both sides insisting the other is wrong.

McGinn remains steadfast he’s doing the right thing by recommending the city block the proposed new Whole Foods from opening because it will drive wages down for all grocery workers in the area.

“When we give away a piece of public property, we are allowed to look at the public benefits,” McGinn told KIRO Radio.

A developer is asking the city to give it a city-owned alley for a major retail and residential development on Fauntleroy Way SW. But McGinn sparked a heated debate earlier this week by writing a letter to the Seattle Department of Transportation, recommending it deny the request.

Whole Foods says they are paying employees a competitive wage. Joe Rogoff, the president of Whole Foods for the Pacific Northwest region, tells KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show the mayor is flat out wrong and that Whole Foods’ wages are comparable to other similar stores.

“In fact, better,” says Rogoff. “I just did another analysis to make sure my facts were right and we’re paying at a higher level than the union contract. We have a higher starting wage, a higher cap. Our average wage is significantly higher.”

Full time and part-time employees that work over 20 hours are eligible to participate in benefits and the average pay for Whole Foods workers in Seattle, Rogoff says, is $16.15, which is more than the $15 “living wage” food workers around Seattle have been calling for.

But McGinn argues that’s merely an average and many employees make far less. He argues Whole Foods employees pay far more in benefit costs than employees at other stores.

“Benefits are just as important,” McGinn says. “Full time Whole Foods employees pay up to $207 per week in premiums for family medical. By contrast, first year full timers at the local grocer PCC pay only $6.25 per week for full family coverage.”

Monson has vehemently criticized McGinn for opposing the Whole Foods project, especially after determining 38 positions in the City of Seattle pay less than $15 per hour.

“I did go through the City of Seattle’s salary schedule and I found several jobs that pay under $15, which I guess is what the mayor has decided is a living wage. But they have City of Seattle cashier, door attendants, golf course groundskeeper, legislative assistants, on and on and on, that make under $15 an hour. Is it hypocritical for them to demand something of your company that they don’t do themselves?”

“I am not in the business of judging other people’s businesses,” says Rogoff. “For me, I know in my business that we want to pay fair wages for what people do, competitive wages. We’re proud of our team members. We think we have great team members that deserve great wages and that’s what we propose to do.”

But McGinn counters Dori’s finding is a positive reflection on the city.

“We have a good benefits package in this city. And if you can find 38 workers out of 11,000, it shows that we are working hard to pay fair wages.”

Rogoff is clearly not interested in going tit for tat with the mayor, but says he would like the opportunity to discuss the matter with him.

“I would love to tell the mayor the facts of who we are as an employer, how we contributed 1,500 jobs to the Seattle metropolitan area now. We’ve been here since ’99. We’re good community citizens. We provide jobs and we provide food people want to eat.”

There is a tremendous amount of demand for a Whole Foods location in West Seattle, Rogoff says, adding they’re doing all they can to overcome any obstacles keeping them from there.

“We just want to be part of that community. We have the demand there for our products, for us to be there. We’ve wanted to be there for a long time. We want to confront whatever’s standing in our way and get our store open.”

Despite the controversy, McGinn remains unapologetic about his stand. And he points out while he feels strongly, the decision about the Whole Foods project ultimately lies with the City Council.

“The issue of income inequality in this country and the issue of service workers getting continually pushed on wages and benefits while our economy continues to grow is something that city government should care about … That’s the race to the bottom that I think we’re seeking to influence here.”

Report by Jamie Skorheim and Josh Kerns

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