Back in the early days of the pandemic, grocery stores gave workers "hero pay." That pay dried up as the pandemic wore on. The work didn't. And with the risky, people-facing work came extra responsibilities, such as wiping down surfaces, wearing PPE, and becoming social distance scolds.
At the end of January, nearly a year after the pandemic changed the way we lived and worked, the Seattle City Council passed legislation mandating big grocery stores pay their workers an additional $4 an hour in hazard pay.
The policy caused a big hubbub with grocers like Kroger-owned QFC and local PCC Community Markets. QFC even announced the company would close two Seattle-area stores due to the demands of the pay. In the mean time, however, Kroger boasted a record $132.5 billion in 2020 sales.
In February, the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association announced a lawsuit against Seattle for "interfering with the collective-bargaining process" and "singling out large grocery companies," the Associated Press reported.
Despite that drama, the King County Council is considering passing a hazard pay ordinance in unincorporated King County today. With the county's policy comes an exemption to prevent food deserts from forming in already vulnerable low-income and minority communities.
"With the surge of business in the pandemic," King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said, "the big chains' profits have skyrocketed. It’s appropriate for the government to come in and balance the scales a little bit."
If passed, companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and with stores larger than 10,000 square feet based in places like Skyway, White Center, and East Redmond will need to pay their employees an extra $4 bucks an hour.
The legislation almost directly mirrors Seattle's policy. The main difference, however, is an amendment by Councilmember Girmay Zahilay to ensure already vulnerable communities don't become food deserts because of this policy. Zahilay was unavailable to comment for this story before press time.
A food desert occurs when residents don't have easy access to affordable, healthy food. In an urban area, that's when people live more than a mile away from a grocery store. A 2019 Public Health Seattle & King County report found that "fewer than 8% of low-income families lived within a 10-minute bus ride to a low- or medium-cost supermarket and more than 89% lived beyond a 10-minute walk to a low-cost supermarket." These deserts disproportionately occurred in areas of South Seattle and South King County.
Zahilay's amendment exempts stores in communities that have "one or no grocery businesses within its census tract" as well as independently-owned stores that have at most four locations, and stores "over two miles from the closest" store that fits under the ordinance's requirements.
Dembowski explained that Zahilay's and the council's primary focus when passing the amendment was the Grocery Outlet in Skyway. The next closest store to Skyway is a Fred Meyer in Renton.
"There was some concern given [the store's] size and the community it serves that it couldn’t sustain the added cost that the bigger chains like Kroger could," Dembowski explained.
Another store, a Red Apple in Southwest King County, may also be exempt because of food desert concerns.
Sarah Cherin, the political and community director for UCFW 21, is working to help pass the county legislation as well as similar hazard pay bills in Bellingham, Bainbridge Island, and Tacoma. She said the union is "sensitive to the fact that there are some food deserts" and she wouldn't want any policy to exacerbate them. Overall, though, she doesn't believe hazard pay will "put grocery stores out of business."
Cherin said that she believed Kroger was "trying to make a political point and threaten other jurisdictions into not passing something like this" by announcing that QFC would be closing two Seattle stores in the wake of the hazard pay policy.
She said she thought that Kroger "would be unwise to shut down more stores in the middle of a pandemic."
So far, Dembowski said he hasn't heard anything from Kroger or the grocery trade organization about the county council policy.
Overall, if passed today, the policy will cover "about 10 stores" and "2,000 to 3,000 employees will benefit," Dembowski said. Dembowski is optimistic about the ordinance's success since it passed out of a committee meeting 7-2, with conservative member Peter von Reichbauer siding with the liberals on the council, a move that surprised Dembowski.
Update: The council passed the ordinance 8-1. Councilmember Reagan Dunn voted no. It will go into effect on March 22.