The Seattle City Council voted against their own December effort to end emergency hazard pay for grocery workers on Tuesday, sustaining a last minute veto by then-mayor Jenny Durkan.
Last month, council voted 8-0 to end an ordinance that requires grocery companied to pay their employees an additional $4 per hour in hazard pay due to COVID-19. Then, Durkan vetoed the ordinance during her last week in office, citing the emerging omicron variant.
“I too had hoped we could remove the need for this temporary premium — but the virus has not relented,” Durkan said in a prepared statement at the time. “I recognize the burden put on some businesses. But until we know more about Omicron, including its severity, ability to evade vaccines, impact on our healthcare system and its course in our community, it is wise to leave the pay in place.”
In Tuesday’s meeting rapt with the issues of private workers — including discussion of a resolution announced the same day by Sawant to back local Starbucks employees seeking to unionize — the council voted 5-2 against an effort to override Durkan’s veto.
Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Council President Debora Juarez voted against ending the hazard pay requirement after supporting the effort in December.
“When I did vote on the ending of the hazard pay legislation, I did say publicly at that time that I recognized that we may need to revisit it because of the uncertainty,” Herbold said Tuesday, explaining that the escalation of omicron in the weeks following their last vote drove her change of heart.
Councilmember Sawant was absent during the December vote, but has vocally opposed ending hazard pay before the state of emergency is lifted. On Tuesday, she voted against ending hazard pay and also urged the council to broaden it beyond grocery workers.
“I’ve repeatedly argued that the hazard pay should not only be maintained for grocery workers, but should be extended to all frontline workers for as long as this public health emergency lasts,” Sawant said, noting that many city workers and council members themselves are working remote under the civil emergency.
The most recent vote, held on the anniversary of the initial passage of the hazard pay requirement, leaves the ordinance in place “for the duration of the civil emergency proclaimed by the Mayor on March 3, 2020.”
Sawant believes it should stay that way.
“The original hazard pay ordinance said that the hazard pay should last as long as the COVID public health emergency lasted. As long as there is an emergency, hazard pay is really the least the grocery workers should be getting,” she said.
Council members Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson voted to appeal the veto on Tuesday, arguing that continuing the ordinance would put an unfair strain on some grocers.
“I’m concerned about their liability because if they close, those jobs go away and the neighborhood loses that asset,” Nelson, who took office at the beginning of the month, said.
“We’re not talking about Kroger here. We’re talking about largely family owned [grocers],” she added. “And if they don’t close, they might have to raise their their prices. And we already know what’s happening with prices with all of the supply chain problems; they’re going up and working class families are hurting.”
Pedersen, who supported the initial creation of the hazard pay requirement and several decisions by the council to defer ending the ordinance before December, said that he believes continuing the temporary pay requirement for too long exceeds the role of local government.
“Beyond the government imposed minimum wage, I believe workers and their employer should negotiate compensation and benefits without a local government dictating what they must be,” Pedersen said Tuesday, noting that similar temporary hazard pay requirements for grocery workers have already been lifted in other Washington and California jurisdictions.
When asked for comment on Tuesday’s council vote, a spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell told The Seattle Times that the mayor “will continue to monitor pandemic conditions and over the next several weeks will work alongside the City Council and key stakeholders, including retailers and workers, to determine an appropriate end date for the hazard pay ordinance.”
A spokesperson for the local chapter of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents grocery store workers, celebrated the decision Tuesday, but called for grocery store owners to improve working conditions.
“This decision is one way to recognize these essential workers as they show up every day to make sure our families are fed,” Tom Geiger, spokesperson for UFCW 21 said in an email Tuesday. “But Grocery store companies and CEOs have made a lot of money and they have a responsibility to step up across the state – across the country. Unionized Grocery store workers will continue to push for improved protection, pay and safety.”