Beginning March 22, hundreds of grocery employees throughout King County will get additional money in their pockets when a $4-per-hour raise goes into effect.

The King County Council Tuesday passed hazard pay legislation for grocery employees working in the unincorporated area of King County for the duration of Executive Dow Constantine’s coronavirus emergency order. King County joins Seattle and cities elsewhere in the country in requiring the $4 pay increase.

King County grocery employees who work 32 hours a week could potentially earn an additional $120 that could go toward child care or mental health services, said a local grocery union.

The additional pay for grocery workers is designed to compensate employees for taking on the additional risk of exposure to coronavirus while working during the pandemic.

The ordinance will grant an additional $4 per hour to workers in unincorporated King County, at stores over 10,000 square feet that mostly sell groceries, or at retail stores over 85,000 square feet where at least 30% of the store is used to sell groceries. The employers must employ at least 500 workers worldwide, with at least one employee working at a store in unincorporated King County. It does not apply to people who work at convenience stores or in farmers markets.

Exempt businesses include those in areas without many fresh food options that are at least two miles from a grocery store that would be required to provide the hazard pay; additionally, the owner-operator must be independent and have four or fewer open stores and employ fewer than 25 workers at the location.

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The ordinance also protects employees from retaliation from their employers over hazard pay and the right to file a civil action if they are denied compensation.

A study published last October in Occupational & Environmental Medicine showed that 20% of 104 grocery employees in a Massachusetts store tested positive for coronavirus, 76% of whom were asymptomatic. The study concluded that employees with direct contact with customers were five times more likely to test positive. 

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski sponsored the legislation to acknowledge that grocery workers are “essential to the public function of getting food into people’s hands and homes,” he said at the bill’s introduction last month.

Hazard pay was given to grocery store employees at the beginning of the pandemic but was inexplicably cut off, Dembowski said: “The pay went away, but the pandemic didn’t and the risk didn’t.”

“I think that it’s the right thing to do for people who are going above and beyond the regular call of duty,” Dembowski said.

During public comments at a King County Council meeting Tuesday, grocery worker Tiffany Melligan-Smith urged council members to pass the legislation. A Safeway employee at the Roxbury location for 10 years, Melligan-Smith said she was infected with COVID-19 in March 2020 and was hospitalized due to severe respiratory issues. She now has severe lung damage due to the disease and had to spend months using an inhaler.

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“My 7-year-old daughter continues to cough profusely and sounds like she has been smoking for years,” Melligan-Smith said.

She said working during the pandemic has been overwhelming. She said she’s witnessed coworkers being cursed at or spat on by irate customers who refused to wear masks, she said. “Not only are we having to deal with the hazards and stresses of working in a grocery store during a pandemic, but we also now have to worry if our customers are keeping us safe,” Melligan-Smith added.

Hazard pay would help many of her coworkers “gain the breathing room that we so desperately need,” she said.

Thousands of grocery workers would be positively impacted by the legislation that could put an extra $120 a week in their pockets, said Sarah Cherin, executive vice president of UFCW Local 21, which represents 46,000 Washington members working in grocery stores, retail, health care and other industries.  

Amid the calls from grocery workers for increased pay during the pandemic, grocery businesses have complained that they are operating at thin profit margins. Last month, QFC announced it would close two Seattle locations, partially due to the passage of the hazard pay law in Seattle.

Holly Chisa, with the industry group Northwest Grocery Association (NGA), disagreed with the King County legislation, citing the large impact it would have on smaller stores. It would be challenging for employers at multilingual stores to post the ordinance’s details in multiple languages within the 30 days required under the legislation, she added. The association has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Seattle, arguing that the mandated raises interferes with the collective-bargaining process between stores and unions.

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Another industry group considered the legislation’s focus on grocery workers arbitrary. Small independent grocery stores that have much lower profit margins than large franchises will be disproportionately impacted, said Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA), which represents independent grocers, convenience stores and suppliers, and is a co-plaintiff in the Seattle lawsuit.

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, the legislation’s co-sponsor, said that he did not buy the argument that large grocery stores would be forced to shut down due to pay increases.

“We have seen a tremendous growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country and a loss of the middle class,” he said. Meanwhile, he argued, large corporate grocery stores are seeing record profits.  

“There is a public interest in ensuring economic opportunity and a healthy middle class for everyone, including and especially those who are putting their lives on the line in the pandemic,” Upthegrove added.