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King County Councilmember: ‘Reasonable and right’ to pass grocery hazard pay

Workers at a ShopRite supermarket stock shelves on April 24, 2020 in Plainview, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Several weeks ago, the City of Seattle mandated that large grocery stores pay its employees a $4 an hour hazard pay during the COVID pandemic. Now, the King County Council has passed a similar ordinance that will impact unincorporated King County.

Why can the King County Council mandate that one particular group should get hazard pay?

“Our ability to do this legislation is limited to the unincorporated parts of the county only,” explained Rod Dembowski, King County Councilmember and co-sponsor of this ordinance.

He clarified that the incorporated cities in King County have their own jurisdiction to enact similar pay ordinances and other worker protections.

“This is the exercise of what they call the police power, not having to do with the police, but the basic, inherent power of government to set wage hour benefits, worker protection rules,” Dembowski said. “It’s a fairly standard practice at all levels of government, and that’s the basis by which we act.”

There are, however, federal laws that regulate collective bargaining, as Dori pointed out. So, Dori asked: “What role does government have to stick its nose into a private business-employee relationship that is covered by federal law?”

“It’s a good question, and you’re right about the federal law, the national labor laws empowering workers and employers to collectively bargain,” Dembowski replied. “But they do that in a framework of the law. So, for example, you couldn’t bargain lower than the minimum wage. You couldn’t bargain away worker hour protections or other safety protections.”

“There’s several layers in which those kinds of issues are set — whether they be wages or safety protections — one of which is the law, the other is what you achieve at the bargaining table,” he added.

So why only grocery workers and not any other category of essential workers?

Dembowski cited a study that shows grocery workers are five times more likely to come down with COVID-19.

“Because they are interacting with hundreds, if not thousands, of customers every day coming into the stores while fulfilling this essential public function of keeping, frankly, our food system going,” he explained.

Dori pushed back, arguing that the study he’s citing is out of Boston, conducted last May in one grocery store, before there were mask mandates and a number of other precautions we have in place now.

“You’re a common sense guy,” Dembowski responded. “You tell me who’s had more exposure, who’s had more illness, who’s had more debt: folks that are working on Zoom, or folks that are stocking the shelves and running the check stand and dealing with hundreds of customers a day? I mean, it just kind of seems fairly obvious to me.”

The risk factor is just one part of it, Dembowski says, the other part being that it’s the right thing to do during an exceptional national emergency.

“This is exceptional legislation. I get that there can be different views on it, and the government is exercising extraordinary power,” he said. “But it’s a pretty extraordinary time.”

“They signed up to do work in one set of conditions,” he added. “And then a whole other scenario, which added risk and added strain came on. And this is not unusual. Federal government does it. When someone is taking on additional duties that were not expected, it’s reasonable and right to give them a little more money.”

Dembowski says he is for unionization and representing workers, and said he’s all for helping out other workers if there are similar situations where they’ve been put at greater risk and have stepped up to keep an essential system functioning.

“One of the things about this grocery store worker piece was it affects positively thousands of workers,” he said. “I don’t want to pass a law just for two or three, or a dozen, or whatever. This actually had the ability to positively help out folks who are making 800 bucks a week for a short time. And I thought, for that reason, it’s the right thing to do. And eight out of nine council members agreed, across the political spectrum. From left to right.”

Councilmember Dunn: Grocery hazard pay is the ‘direct fist of government’

As a safety measure, the council did add a check-in period to the legislation of 90 days to see if there are any unintended consequences and if it’s still necessary.

“We’re going to check in,” he said. “We’re trying to be judicious about it. We’re trying to be balanced. But at the end of the day, I think that most folks would agree, and eight out of nine county council members agreed, it’s the right thing to do.”

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