Opinion: Shades of hypocrisy, similarities in Seattle minimum wage and hazard pay debates

Former MyNorthwest.com Editor

The battle to provide fair wages to workers in Seattle is one that dates back years. It’s also one that’s defined by an argument as old as time from large-scale employers, who claim that fair wages are somehow bad for everyone.

King County looks to expand hazard pay for grocery store workers

We’ve often seen that argument come up when a restaurant owned by a major conglomerate shuts down a Seattle location, and now we’re seeing it rear its head amid the city’s recent passing of a $4-an-hour grocery store hazard pay ordinance.

In 2019, Restaurants Unlimited shuttered its Henry’s Tavern location in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, claiming that the decision was primarily driven by the city’s $15 minimum wage. That was also in the midst of the company filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, after spending years looking for a prospective buyer.

But others in the industry took issue with that claim, including restaurateur Ethan Stowell, who blamed the struggles of local restaurants on a variety of factors that go far beyond wages, including the increased cost of living, the rise of third-party delivery apps, and more. Combined with a claim from a former Henry’s employee who said that Restaurants Unlimited’s struggles had more to do with its own mismanagement, it’s difficult to see the company’s parting shots against fair wages as anything more than a smokescreen.

Fast forward to 2021, where we’re seeing the same disconnects in logic, this time with the debate surrounding hazard pay for grocery store workers on the front lines of a pandemic.

Prior to the implementation of Seattle’s own extra $4 an hour ordinance, PCC Markets CEO Suzy Monford was practically begging Mayor Jenny Durkan to veto the measure, citing the company’s inability to make ends meet if it was forced to raise wages in any meaningful way for the duration of the pandemic.

A week later, it went into effect anyway, and PCC Markets magically found the money and then some, somehow finding itself able to not only afford the added pay in Seattle, but also to expand it to all of its Washington state locations.

Mayor Durkan rejects calls to veto grocery store hazard pay

Trader Joe’s found itself similarly able to absorb the increased costs, eventually deciding to enact an extra $4 an hour for all of its workers nationwide.

Kroger took the opposite approach, echoing the messaging of Restaurants Unlimited and blaming the closure of two Seattle QFC locations on the increase in wages. Buried in its press release detailing the decision, Kroger also admitted that those two locations were already “underperforming” and “long struggling,” including a 15th Avenue East QFC that was already competing with two other larger QFC locations within a mile, both situated along Broadway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Despite crying poor now, Kroger saw its largest single-year increase in revenue in 2020 in four years, a trend that was consistent across most major supermarket and retail chains. Those very same companies also almost uniformly cut off their own so-called “hero pay” months into the pandemic.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that Kroger really is strapped for cash and had no choice but to shut down a pair of QFC locations mere days after a citywide hazard pay ordinance went into effect. Even when trying to wrap your head around that premise, it strains credulity when a company claims it’s struggling in a way that doesn’t appear to be affecting anyone but them.

And when your competition manages to handily beat you at that game, it becomes obvious that the issue isn’t that lower-wage workers are finally able to make a sustainable living — the bigger problem is clearly just bad business.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at nbowman@bonneville.com.