With divisive vote, Seattle council upholds grocery worker hazard pay ordinance

Jan 25, 2022, 6:03 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2022, 7:47 am
hazard pay...
Patrons shop for groceries and supplies at Costco Wholesale. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Seattle City Council has voted to maintain a $4 an hour hazard pay requirement for the city’s grocery store employees.

The council’s relationship to hazard pay is as changeable as King County’s COVID numbers. The council had originally sunset the requirement in December with a unanimous vote, before overall case rates began to peak and hospitals started to see an influx of intensive care patients with COVID complications.

Later that month, former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan would veto the move to end hazard pay, citing a then 143% increase in COVID cases in King County over the previous week.

The hazard pay requirement legislation was originally passed in February 2021, designed to provide added compensation for those working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the council ultimately voted 2-5 to reject ending the hazard pay requirement, declining to override the mayoral veto, effectively maintaining the hazard pay ordinance.

Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (District 4) and Sara Nelson (Position 9) voted to repeal hazard pay, and Councilmembers Kshama Sawant (District 3), Lisa Herbold (District 1), Andrew Lewis (District 7), Tammy Morales (District 2) and Debora Juarez (District 5) voted in affirmation of the requirement. Councilmembers Dan Strauss (District 6) and Teresa Mosqueda (Position 8) were not present.

The vote became a flash point of tension among the council. While hazard pay is usually couched by the council as a function of public health concern related to COVID, Councilmember Sawant views the requirement as a labor issue, calling it “watered down” legislation, ultimately about “workers’ rights” that should be expanded to all frontline, low wage employees.

Earlier on Tuesday, Sawant delivered a speech affirming her commitment to ongoing unionization efforts in Seattle, in which she announced a push to streamline organized labor efforts at Starbucks locations in the Seattle area. A focal point of her speech was criticism of the council’s decision to sunset hazard pay in December.

“Seven of the eight Democrats currently on the city council voted just last month to end the $4 an hour hazard pay for our grocery workers,” Sawant said in a Jan. 25 speech.

“If you, as a politician, claim to be pro-worker and pro-union, … and then vote [to repeal hazard pay] then you are showing yourself to be anti-worker, anti-union. … So what is going to be? Workers want to know, which side are you on?”

Councilmembers Nelson and Pedersen countered that position with the point that the legislation in support of the pay increase was originally drafted explicitly as a response to the COVID pandemic, and with positive cases once again trending down in King County, “I think that we’re at that time for appropriate next steps,” Nelson said in council sessions Jan. 25.

Nelson also invoked inflation and grocery price increases for “working families,” which, in her view, cannot abide government-brokered pay increases.

“I have spoken with PCC [Community Markets] … and they’re really struggling with this significant pay increase,” Nelson continued.

“[I’m] concerned about their viability because if they close, those jobs go away, and the neighborhood loses that asset. …We’re talking about largely family-owned [stores], and if they don’t close, they might have to raise their prices, and we already know what’s happening with prices,” Nelson said. “With all the supply chain problems, they’re already going up and working families are hurting.”

The Northwest Grocery Association echoed that sentiment in a statement, writing, “We are extremely frustrated with the Seattle City Council’s decision today to accept Mayor Durkan’s veto of the Council’s December 13 unanimous decision to repeal Seattle’s completely unfair and illogical hazard pay ordinance.”

“While many municipalities in Washington and California passed these ordinances in 2021, Seattle is now the only city in the county to still have hazard pay in effect a full year later, and this is because other cities recognize that imposing hazard pay on one small sector of one industry is punitive, arbitrary and unnecessary,” the statement continues. “In this time of inflation, this ordinance is not only inequitable but also adds real risk that prices for food and basic needs will increase even more for Seattle households.”

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With divisive vote, Seattle council upholds grocery worker hazard pay ordinance