To work in the grocery store is both an honor, and lately, a curse. Our jobs have always served the community and provided something of value, something real. Not just a bag of groceries and the medicine from the store’s pharmacy. Something more. Something dependable, familiar and safe.
A year ago, that world changed.
As grocery-store workers, we became exposed to a new and deadly virus. In March, our employers reached an agreement with our union to adjust to this emerging new world. More people were hired to disinfect and clean stores. Signs were placed to inform everyone to keep 6 feet apart. After initial delay, workers and customers were required to wear masks. Grocery-store workers were paid an extra $2 an hour in “hazard pay” for the extraordinary circumstances under which we were working. These were good first steps and should have been expanded.
By May, the big grocery-store companies saw that while restaurants and schools closed down, the checkout aisles were busier than ever. Store CEOs saw so much more cash, they couldn’t see straight. They decided it was the right time to cut our hazard pay. That was wrong and should never have happened. The companies had months to right this wrong, and they never have.
Unlike shoppers’ 30-minute trips once or twice a week, we were stuck there hour after hour for full 6- to 8-hour-shifts, four or five days a week. Each day, we would come to work and worry: Would today be the day we caught this virus? It did not stop when we left work. We carried the fear and stress as we came home and washed before even hugging our loved ones. Safety concerns were hard enough, but that cut in hazard pay was a slap in the face. A sign of disrespect, that our lives didn’t matter.
Later in the year, the early staffing and safety measures had largely faded away while the hazard pay, despite our ongoing pleas, was never replaced. Later reports would show publicly what the companies had known earlier; their higher profits were in the billions — that’s with a “B.” Yet nothing more for our service. Being essential was little more than that — never paid out in cash. CEOs got their millions in compensation packages while our pay cut remained in place.
Finally, just last month, we took matters into our own hands and as workers we joined together in our union and in late January, the Seattle City Council passed our $4 an hour hazard pay. Then, in early February, Burien followed suit.
The reaction from the companies and their industry groups was fast and furious. Lawsuits were filed. Claims were made that grocery stores were unfairly singled out. Were they unfairly singled out when they were deemed essential? Their doors stayed open and they made billions in profits as restaurants closed.
We still need better enforcement of masks and shopper limits to make our stores safer, but at least Seattle and Burien workers are getting extra pay for the hazards we face. More local governments need to pass hazard pay. If the companies want to get ahead of this, they could simply reinstate hazard pay that they cut last summer instead of supporting lawsuits against the communities we call home.
We thank all the shoppers out there for your support. Please keep wearing masks and limiting your trips to the store each week. And if anyone wants to join us in this essential work, most of our stores could deal with a few more hands on deck — and, who knows, the extra $4 an hour might entice a few people to apply for a grocery-store job.