A federal judge has dismissed a grocery industry lawsuit that sought to block Seattle’s new law granting $4-an-hour raises to grocery store workers for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
The law applies to large grocers, those with more than 500 employees worldwide and stores larger than 10,000 square feet, in Seattle. It mandates a $4-an-hour pay boost for all workers in retail locations. And that pay boost must remain in effect for as long as Seattle remains in a declared civil emergency.
The City Council passed the wage hike law unanimously in late January, after advocacy from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21.
“…[G]iven the City’s findings that large grocery businesses have earned record profits during COVID-19 … and that grocery store employees are at significantly heightened risk of contracting COVID-19,” U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour wrote, “[t]his is a reasonable grounds for the distinctions drawn in the Ordinance.”
“This is a big win for grocery store employees who have been critical and vulnerable frontline workers since the start of the pandemic,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office defended the law, said in a prepared statement.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleged the city’s law interferes with the collective-bargaining process between grocery stores and unions and also “picks winners and losers” by singling out large grocery companies.
The law, the grocery industry wrote in court filings, “is devoid of any provisions that address employee health or safety” and was enacted under “purely political justification” after lobbying by the UFCW.
“The City of Seattle has enacted an Ordinance that serves the discrete interests of a small group at the expense of other grocers, other essential workers, and the other residents of Seattle,” lawyers for the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association wrote.
Holmes countered that the law is well within the city’s purview of protecting workers and regulating business.
“For more than eight decades, the unquestionable law of the land has enabled local
governments to impose minimum compensation requirements on businesses,” Holmes wrote in court filings. The grocery industry’s lawsuit urges “this Court to return to the nineteenth century and elevate their private arrangements to purchase labor over public health, safety, and welfare.”
Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, called the ruling “another blow to the independent grocery store operators who continue to operate on the thinnest of margins during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“These pay mandates do not consider the differences within our industry,” Hetrick said in a prepared statement. “Our members have invested millions into safety measures for their employees and customers, while also providing additional pay and other bonuses. But that appears to be lost in this debate over wages — not safety.”
Faye Guenther, president of UFCW Local 21, called the decision “a big win for grocery workers.”
“The city’s hazard pay ordinance is a good law that provides temporary additional pay to the frontline workers in our grocery stores,” Guenther said in a prepared statement. “These workers’ labor is what has allowed the rest of us in the community to get access to the food and other necessities we need and has resulted in the huge increased profits for the grocery store corporations.”
Other cities, mostly along the West Coast, including Burien, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Long Beach, California, have also recently forwarded or approved similar “hazard pay” boosts for grocery workers.
In response to Seattle’s law, Trader Joe’s gave temporary $4-an-hour raises to all its employees nationwide, while also canceling a previously scheduled, much smaller permanent raise. QFC announced it would close two Seattle stores, blaming, in part, the new law, even as it acknowledged the stores were underperforming.
Seattle has made several efforts to boost the pay of lower-wage essential workers who are often far more exposed to the virus than higher-wage office workers, many of whom have shifted to remote work.
Last summer, the City Council required companies like Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates to pay their delivery drivers an additional $2.50 per order during the coronavirus emergency. The city also capped how much food-delivery services can charge restaurants while indoor dining remains off-limits. In the fall, the council passed legislation ensuring that Uber and Lyft drivers are paid the city’s $16.39 minimum wage, the same as other workers. Uber promptly raised prices, and Lyft said it might follow suit.
Seattle also required all app-based delivery and transportation companies to offer their drivers paid sick days during the pandemic.