Seattle City Council Democrats have put a bill up for a vote on today’s meeting agenda to end $4/hour pandemic hazard pay for grocery workers. If this bill is approved into law, it would be a crushing blow for thousands of grocery workers who continue to struggle as both the BA.5 COVID variant and inflation surge.
Rex, a Ballard grocery worker, said during last Tuesday’s City Council public comment, “In the past two months, 30 of 120 coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s 25 percent of our workforce. This is a loss of 1,200 labor hours, leading us to a huge staffing shortage in our store. We are tired. This $4 is not only for the sick, it's compensation for the overworked, overlooked, and still underpaid.”
Trent, a West Seattle worker and member of grocery workers union UFCW Local 3000, told the City Council, “... we are basically hanging by a thread. And if that thread called hazard pay is cut, it’s going to be very devastating for the grocery workers in this city.”
In contrast, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen took home a cool $18 million last year. Albertsons President Sharon McCollam was paid $11.7 million. The companies they head up are major chains–the many brands owned by Kroger include QFC and Fred Meyer, while Albertsons owns Safeway, among other brands. They’re hiking food prices for working people while reaping billions in profits.
The COVID hazard pay measure adopted in 2021 required hazard pay from grocery chains as long as Seattle was under a Mayor-declared civil emergency. This was an important labor victory, even as the pandemic’s burdens have been thrust on the shoulders of working people. The city is still under that emergency, with hundreds of new COVID cases being recorded each day.
Yet, this is the seventh time the Democrats have put legislation to end hazard pay on the Council’s agenda. Compare this approach to how, in the last forty years, the Washington State Democrats have not once put ending the statewide rent control ban up for a vote. They have controlled the Governor’s mansion for 30 out of the last 30 years, the Senate for 20 years, the House for 23 years, and have controlled all three for 15 of those 30 years. It’s revealing of the real priorities of the Democratic Party.
To date, my socialist Council office is the only one that has consistently opposed ending hazard pay. Democrats had prepared to vote on legislation ending hazard pay—sponsored by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda—as early as July 26 of last year. Pressure from strong public support for hazard pay forced them to delay the vote until last December 13, at which point all eight Democrats voted ‘Yes’ to end hazard pay. I was sick that day, and was unable to attend, but I had made my opposition to ending hazard pay during the pandemic perfectly clear. With the Omicron virus flaring, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan was forced to veto that cruel measure.
Councilmember Mosqueda argued at the time that Seattle should end our hazard pay because other cities had already ended theirs. We cannot accept this race-to-the-bottom argument.
Council members will point to the new contract between UFCW Local 3000 and the major grocery bosses. They will say that Seattle’s hazard pay must be repealed before UFCW members can get their negotiated pay raises.
A plain reading of the union contract shows this is utterly untrue.
The new contract states that the 2022 pay increases are “effective on the first day of the contract or the first Sunday after Hazard pay ends, whichever is later, but no later than Aug. 28, 2022.” In other words, union workers will get their deserved pay increases by Aug. 28 (which is before this bill would take effect), whether or not Seattle’s hazard pay remains.
The Democratic establishment will also use the notion that UFCW will get substantial raises in their contract, and that ending hazard pay will not result in lost wages or pose a hardship.
Their math doesn’t add up. Union-represented workers will receive a raise this year of 15¢/hour for new hires, and $2/hour for most workers with over 3.5 years experience. Workers without a union will not get those raises. No matter how you slice it, losing $4/hour will be a major pay cut for most union members, not to mention those without a union.
The City Council’s own policy staff have noted that ending hazard pay early will land hardest on marginalized communities. A July 22 staff memo stated, “Ending hazard pay requirements for grocery store employees could have a disproportionate impact on grocery workers who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The risks of working during the pandemic are especially significant for BIPOC workers because they are overrepresented among the retail frontline workforce, more likely to earn lower incomes, and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”
And let’s be clear: Ending hazard pay won’t lower food prices—these corporate chains have not, and will not, return the “savings” to consumers. Kroger and other supermarket corporations are profiting handsomely from inflation, which, according to a recent Bloomberg article, “remains on a tear, especially when it comes to food costs, which rose 10.4% in June from a year ago, the largest increase since 1981.”
By voting to end hazard pay early, City Council Democrats will be doing more than terminating a crucial public policy. They will be saying, in the midst of this ongoing health emergency, that the lives and well-being of frontline grocery workers don’t matter, whereas profits for the wealthy reign supreme.
I urge you to join me in demanding that the Democrats not side with big business, and publicly renounce any further effort to repeal the hazard pay ordinance that we fought for and won, while grocery workers continue to struggle in this city. I also appeal to the elected leaders of UFCW Local 3000 and the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council to publicly call on the City Council to vote NO on this bill.