Grocery store workers in Seattle should soon get an extra $4 an hour for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, as the Seattle City Council approved legislation Monday requiring large grocers to immediately start offering hazard pay.
The legislation, introduced just last week, passed 8-0 Monday, clearing a requirement that it receive a three-quarter supermajority in order to go into effect immediately. Mayor Jenny Durkan called the policy “a strong step forward in Seattle’s recovery.”
The new requirement applies to grocery companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and to stores larger than 10,000 square feet. It does not apply to convenience stores or farmers markets.
Covered businesses will have to pay their retail employees $4 an hour on top of the pay they currently receive as long as the city’s coronavirus civil emergency, first declared in early March of last year, remains in effect. The legislation says the City Council intends to reconsider the policy after four months, but that is nonbinding.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, the legislation’s lead sponsor, noted that the City Council has been meeting remotely since March because of the pandemic, and that she often orders groceries online and picks them up outside the store. That’s not possible for grocery workers.
“They have been going in to work every single day and we appreciate them,” Mosqueda said. “Grocery store workers face serious risks of COVID infection and the least we can do is provide them with protective gear, access to vaccines and the City Council, acting today, to make sure they have hazard pay.”
Many grocery chains, she said, initially offered hazard pay last spring, but those policies, in many cases, faded.
“Our ability to feed our families relies on grocery workers showing up each day,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales. “Those who are putting themselves on the front lines every day should be compensated for the work they’re doing.”
A parade of union officials and grocery workers testified before the City Council on Monday in support of the pay boost, citing the increased risk workers have taken on and the increased profits of many of their employers.
Stock prices for major grocers like Kroger (parent company of QFC and Fred Meyer), Walmart, Amazon and Target, have all boomed since the beginning of the pandemic.
“At work, grocery store workers are expected to do more than ever before,” said Faye Guenther, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which helped lead the push for the pay boost. “Grocery store workers have risked their lives for all of us, they need hazard pay now.”
Tammie Hetrick, president of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents grocers, said her members might look to cut back on the work they do in the community, things like working with food banks and nonprofit sponsorships.
She said grocers, who have very low profit margins already, were also staring at “huge increases” in their unemployment taxes exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’re gong to have to make adjustments somewhere,” Hetrick said. “I know price increases is not where they’re going to look.”
Holly Chisa, with the Northwest Grocery Association said she hadn’t heard from member grocers on possible effects of the pay boost, they were just concerned with how quickly it goes into effect.
“We got no lead-in time,” Chisa said. “Right now they are simply trying to implement a requirement that council has put on them with very little time to prep.”
Alicia Teel, a spokesperson for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the bill was “well-intentioned” but asks too much of employers and “sets a new precedent for unpredictability.”
“Acting with urgency should not include incomplete outreach to those who will be impacted,” Teel said.
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.