The Seattle City Council’s decision to force big grocery store chains into paying $4 an hour coronavirus hazard pay is turning into a typical Seattle government story.
“Please — pay the workers, not the lawyers,” Mayor Jenny Durkan scolded the city’s grocery stores after they challenged the new hazard pay law in court this past week. Hazard pay, she said, “is the right thing to do for our workers.”
What do you mean by “our?”
The head of PCC Markets, who is new around here, made the rookie mistake of poking her head up to suggest that her independent cooperative may have trouble affording $4 an hour more (the mandate applies to groceries with more than 500 employees companywide, which PCC has). But PCC had already paid out twice last year’s total profits in COVID costs and bonuses, she said, so this, coming a year into the pandemic, seems … ill-timed and unsustainable?
She got her head chopped right off.
“What happened to PCC? When did you turn against your workers?” read one of the many flaming tweets aimed at the company, along with others demanding that she resign (she’s been on the job all of six weeks). Some sent photos of PCC member cards being cut in two with scissors.
I’m not new here, but for some reason I’m going to poke my head up anyway to say: It didn’t have to be this way.
Front-line workers out there risking COVID deserve hazard pay, full stop. This has been abundantly clear since March, when we shut down and most of us worked from home while the health care workers, the bus drivers, the fruit pickers, the cops, the grocery checkers and others kept at it, often in crowded conditions that risked disease.
The pandemic is a society-wide emergency that uniquely demonstrates why we need the government safety net. Yet government, at all levels, has repeatedly failed to provide much support at all to front-line workers.
“Despite early political momentum and a clear rationale to do so, the U.S. Congress has not passed any government-funded hazard pay for front-line workers during the pandemic,” the Brookings Institution in D.C. wrote in a report last week.
Some states did. Pennsylvania gave grants to businesses in return for them providing $3 an hour hazard pay to more than 41,000 workers in “life-sustaining” industries. Vermont gave one-time hazard bonuses of $1,200 or $2,000 to private company employees, and Louisiana has repaid businesses for giving pandemic pay boosts to more than 100,000 bus drivers, housekeepers, child care workers and more.
“Louisiana appreciates the dedication and commitment of all Louisiana front-line workers,” the program’s website says.
Where was that kind of collaborative effort here? Yes, we have a few companies like Amazon making record profits off the pandemic, but most businesses have had to remake what they do and are eking along. Why not work with them to try to get hazard pay to a wider range of their workers?
The city could offer businesses tax credits in exchange for giving workers hazard pay. The state could steer federal relief money toward workers, as those other states cited above did. So far, the federal government has allocated Washington state about $5 billion in COVID relief funds, but very little has gone to front-line worker pay.
The $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package being debated in Congress contains excellent unemployment aid, but nothing for hazard pay for front-line workers. Local and state governments could dedicate some of their funds to this cause — if they choose to. But locally, many of the front-line government workers most heavily hit by the coronavirus haven’t even gotten hazard pay (for example, Metro bus drivers, some of whom have died from COVID-19). So it’s a stretch to think the government is suddenly going to help private businesses do it now.
We all recall the pandemic cliché, “We’re all in this together.” In Seattle, we are so not all in it together that now a grocery bagger at a big chain store like Safeway gets a $4 an hour pay boost, while a grocery bagger at a smaller neighborhood market or a convenience store gets nothing. Why? Nothing to do with coronavirus hazard, or how thankful we are. Everything to do with how politically it was the easy way out to just make somebody else pay for it.
In the fall, I wrote that our state and local governments deserved an “A” grade for the health side of this pandemic. They still do. After we were home to the first reported coronavirus death in the nation a year ago, we have steadily improved so that we rank 44th out of the 50 states in per capita COVID-19 deaths. That’s a public health triumph.
But as to working creatively with the state’s businesses to keep the economy running, they don’t even get a grade. They’re marked absent for barely trying.