In the service of well-meaning but incompletely considered demands, the Seattle City Council keeps pushing the boundaries of how much the city’s economy can endure.
Requiring grocery companies to add $4-an-hour “hazard pay” for their employees for the duration of the pandemic is the latest example. Even though the new ordinance doesn’t apply to convenience stores or farmers markets, the risk of unintended consequences is high.
Grocers operate with razor-thin profit margins and, because of the pandemic, face large increases in unemployment taxes.
Tammie Hetrick, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents grocers, told my colleague David Gutman that members might look to cut back on the work they do in the community, such as working with food banks and sponsorships of nonprofits.
“We’re going to have to make adjustments somewhere,” Hetrick said. “I know price increases is not where they’re going to look.”
Maybe. But consumers will likely pay for at least some of the added cost. It’s nice to assume that big chains whose stock has soared would absorb it themselves, but that’s not how business works. Under the “shareholder value” movement that has ruled Wall Street for the past several decades, rewarding stockholders comes first, COVID or not.
Also, despite Hetrick’s coyness (for fear of antagonizing the council?), those higher costs and thin margins may drive some stores to close or cut staffing.
It also appears the grocery industry was sandbagged by the sudden ordinance, with no seat at the table.
The hazard pay is limited to grocery workers. Why? What about delivery drivers, ride-hailing drivers, janitors, restaurant employees, etc.? This past year the council did require $2.50 per order for app delivery drivers.
Another hole in the council’s approach is the lack of focus on reviving the city’s economy, especially downtown, where 55% of Seattle’s jobs are and 52% of taxes paid by Seattle businesses are generated.
At a time when some experts are predicting a fundamental shift to remote work and even the death of the central business district, this ought to be a priority. The pre-pandemic downtown generated most of the funding and prosperity that cloaked the consequences of council experimentation. But that was then.
The council has been unhelpful on crime, sidewalk and park camping, and other public-safety issues. The IGA Kress supermarket on Third Avenue was an important asset to residents of downtown and Belltown. But, in addition to shoplifting, it had difficulty keeping workers who were afraid of the location. It has since closed.
Mass transit is in crisis. Yet the council, which never fails to meddle, isn’t interested. Before the pandemic hit, Mayor Jenny Durkan stopped the Central City Connector streetcar, a blunder that will cost even more when it is inevitably completed.
The fast 8-0 vote in favor of the hazard pay is revealing. Seattle politics has become one flavor, never a healthy situation whoever is in charge.
Council members have only the thinnest private-sector experience. And what they do have is cast as “woke” moral superiority.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen spent four years with CBRE, but his LinkedIn profile says the work “Expanded funding opportunities for clients seeking to purchase or preserve existing multifamily housing that provides affordable rents throughout the country using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits or Section 8.”
To be fair, Pedersen sent out an email Thursday seeking to outline a more comprehensive economic strategy. But this makes him an outlier.
No wonder. Other members’ backgrounds are mostly in politics and activism.
For example, Council President M. Lorena Gonzales’ information page lists her experience as a partner at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender. But lest you think she was a white-shoe mouthpiece working for The Man, it continues: “Lorena focused her practice on representing individuals who were victimized by people in authority positions.”
It would be healthy if even one member had been under pressure to meet a payroll or, as a business owner, deal with a changing regulatory environment. Yet there’s not one member with experience in tech, maritime, hospitality, restaurants, aerospace or small business.
So it’s no wonder this council is so deaf to pleas from the private sector or blind to the dangers facing Seattle’s economic future. No wonder that the council and Durkan abandoned part of Capitol Hill to the lawless CHAZ. No wonder they love hating Amazon, whose headquarters is a priceless asset.
This isn’t advancing social justice. It’s civic malpractice.
Yet many businesses and citizens are afraid to speak up, so powerful are the wokesters. And let’s not forget that these council members were voted in. They bring a mindset, as H.L. Mencken supposedly said, that “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
Which brings to mind another Mencken axiom: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
A backlash will eventually come. I only hope the damage to the city isn’t too bad by the time it arrives.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.