On Dec. 13, the Seattle City Council voted 8-0 to end its mandate on Seattle grocery stores with 500 or more employees to pay frontline workers an extra $4 hourly hazard pay. Chair of the Finance & Housing committee Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda spoke highly of hazard pay at the council meeting—remarks that would be more fitting to pass hazard pay rather than take it away.
The bill will go into effect one month after the mayor signs it into law, thus ending nearly a year of extra compensation. Mosqueda said the council will revisit hazard pay if the risk to workers becomes more severe. Public Health – Seattle & King County said the department does not have “anything to contribute on hazard pay at this time.”
Mosqueda also said she will continue to advocate for long-term solutions in the low-wage industry, solutions she said the hazard pay was never intended to substitute.
A spokesperson from UFCW 21, the union that lobbied the council for the hazard pay, said in a statement that the union is “grateful the Seattle City Council and Mayor listened, acted, and then kept hazard pay in place this long.” The union will now turn their attention to “winning permanent wage increases for essential workers.”
Mosqueda said the temporary hazard pay ordinance has “sparked a conversation” between employee and employer to facilitate those permanent wins.
Jonathan Bishofsky-Crews, a worker at the Ballard Trader Joe’s, said, “a conversation amongst labor does not pay my bills next month.”
“I know a lot of people are living on a razor's edge right now and they're gonna fall between the cracks immediately,” Bishofsky-Crews said.
The vote, which council members cast via Zoom conference, will cut many grocery workers' monthly income up to 20% as they continue to work on the front lines through the omicron variant surge.
Grocery workers anticipate massive pay cuts
One Seattle resident who has worked at Trader Joe’s for two years said they tracked this legislation closely – they even have a Google alert set up for the words “Seattle ordinance” and “hazard pay.”
The council initially passed the pay bump for grocery workers in January 2021, then revisited the ordinance in June and opted to extend it. Most recently, in September, the council voted to delay a vote to lift the ordinance. At that time, Mosqueda argued it was necessary to wait because of the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.
For the two-year Trader Joe's employee (who asked to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation at work), that delay was a “sigh of relief.”
“I'm okay for now,” the non-union worker remembered thinking.
That relief did not last long. All council members voted to end hazard pay except Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who could not attend the meeting on Monday. Her office said Sawant was “categorically opposed [to] ending the grocery worker hazard pay.”
“And then it felt like silently the council was just like, just kidding, we're going to talk about ending it now,” they said. “It's just a huge disappointment and I feel like we've been kind of abandoned.”
The worker said they knew the $4 bump would eventually go away, but for the months where their pay went from $17 to $21 an hour, they enjoyed a higher quality of life. For example, they used that extra money to go to the doctor and get dental work they had been putting off. This worker was not worried about their rent, but still planned to find another job because they “got used to a livable wage.”
Another grocery store worker, Christine, began working at a Ballard grocery store just before the pandemic hit. She said she made about $18 an hour before the $4 an hour hazard pay. For almost a year, she took home about $600 a month in hazard pay, which is almost 20% of her total monthly income.
Christine said she quit her second job this April to go back to school, and her partner does not work. Even with the hazard pay, she is spending more than she earns. She will now apply for more government assistance programs so she can continue to live in low-income housing and afford to eat.
For workers at Trader Joe’s, who are not unionized, the company leadership stopped employees' twice-yearly raises in response to the hazard pay ordinance. Employees said these raises typically range from 50 cents to 75 cents depending on performance and seniority. That means some wages would be permanently $1.50 higher by now if not paused under the temporary raise.
Bishofsky-Crews said he’s worried about living off of his pre-ordinance income amid pandemic-induced inflation. He said he just bought Christmas presents – but he doesn’t know how many he can afford to keep.
Hazard pay gone, but the hazard continues
Ahead of the Monday vote, Mosqueda said the initial hazard pay ordinance, which passed amid the COVID-19 spike in the new year, aimed to compensate workers for “the risk to their health and safety and the health and safety of their families, especially before any vaccines were available.”
At that month’s peak, King County saw more than 800 new COVID-19 cases a day. The day the council voted to end hazard pay, the county reported over 200 new COVID-19 cases according to the state's dashboard. The seven day average when the council passed hazard pay was much higher than it is currently, and with a much lower vaccination rate, that meant deadlier conditions at the start of hazard pay. Still, with the unknowns of the emerging omicron variant, many grocery store workers sustain their health concerns.
On Dec. 14, management at one Seattle Trader Joe’s sent a storewide email to inform employees that one of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19. The email, which The Stranger obtained, said “there remains an ongoing general risk in the community” and encouraged workers to follow the CDC’s current guidance.
“The hazard is still there for all of us,” said Anne Woodford, a worker at the Capitol Hill Trader Joe's. “Since we're still being exposed constantly, and with every new variant that comes along, I just feel that until there really is an end in sight, and hospitals aren't full, and cases and deaths are down, [the council] needs to leave hazard pay in place.”
Since the height of the pandemic, businesses have relaxed safety restrictions. Some grocery stores no longer have plexiglass partitions, rigid cleaning regimes, or strict capacity limits to allow for adequate social distancing. Mosqueda noted that when hazard pay originally passed, grocery workers testified in public comment about encounters with unmasked customers. Grocery workers said these such encounters still happen. Woodford said two of her coworkers are unvaccinated and go unmasked in break rooms. Three Trader Joe’s employees confirmed that workers were not allowed to kick out customers to enforce mask policies.
Three Trader Joe’s workers confirmed that the company used to offer special compensated sick days in the pandemic to encourage workers to stay home when they feel ill. The workers said those no longer exist which may lead workers to make the difficult decision between keeping their workplace healthy and getting paid if they have not accumulated sick time.
“If [the council] really believed that the hazard was gone and that we need to take away hazard pay, the city council would be having in-person meetings, and they would be talking about removing the mask mandates. But the fact is that they know that the hazards are still there – they just need to pretend that it doesn't affect workers anymore, which is ridiculous,” Christine said.
What this means for labor
“We pride ourselves in Seattle on being leaders on labor standards,” Mosqueda said, moments before taking back one of labor’s biggest wins of the COVID-19 crisis.
Seattle led the charge on hazard pay for grocery workers. Mosqueda listed several California cities that followed in Seattle’s footsteps, but stopped providing the extra compensation much earlier.
Closer to home, Snohomish County gave one-time $1,250 hazard pay bonuses. The Pierce County executive vetoed the county’s hazard pay for grocery workers in unincorporated parts of the county after the council voted to approve it. An initiative to ensure hazard pay under a state of emergency in Bellingham failed in the November general election. Burien also mandated hazard pay. It is set to continue until the governor ends the state of emergency, with no bills scheduled to change that expiration date, according to a Burien City employee.
Grocery employers made their disdain for the mandated extra compensation known. The Northwest Grocery Association filed a lawsuit against what it argued was an unconstitutional ordinance. When the council voted to end hazard pay, it earned a thank-you from Amanda Dalton, President of the Northwest Grocery Association. Grocery workers like Bishofsky-Crews, Woodford, and Christine agreed “the council bent to the will of the grocery industry.”
Despite expiring protections, worker power is building across the country in the wake of the pandemic as workers put their health at risk and corporations reap the fruits of their labor. UFCW 21 said that 150,000 grocery store workers down the coast are heading into negotiations.
Some grocery workers anticipate an exacerbated labor shortage in their industry locally. Bishofsky-Crews said morale is down and workers are hungry for change.
“The amount of antidepressants I knew the name of before the pandemic has tripled,” Bishofsky-Crews said. “Basically, anyone that I talk to at work is taking two or three extra medications than they were before just to make it through the anxiety of showing up to work every day.”
While these workers said they want to build worker power, that is a long and difficult process.
To Mosqueda’s apparent openness to advocating for long-term solutions, Woodford and others suggested rent control to make the city affordable and a raise to the minimum wage.
“You want employees, you want to keep employees, so pay them what they're worth,” Woodford said.