On Tuesday, a somewhat narrow majority of the Seattle City Council voted against overturning former Mayor Jenny Durkan's veto of the council's attempt to end hazard pay for grocery workers last month, effectively extending the benefit for workers until the council says otherwise or the civil emergency ends. According to a Trader Joe's worker at public comment, the approval is “the least the council can do” for the workers who get breathed on by grocery shoppers for several hours a day.
Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pederson both voted yes to overturn the former mayor’s veto. Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Dan Strauss were absent.
Back in December, the council voted 8 - 0 to end the mandate on Seattle grocery stores with 500+ employees to pay frontline workers an extra $4 an hour. At the time, grocery workers told The Stranger they felt “abandoned” by the council, who had given them, in some cases, a 20% raise.
In the meeting on Tuesday, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used ignorance to justify the council’s move to end hazard pay, arguing the vote took place “a week before” the Omicron surge. At that time, many council members said they may need to revisit the decision, but then-Mayor Durkan beat them to it.
When she vetoed the council’s decision on Dec 27, Durkan had the advantage of two weeks additional knowledge of the highly transmissible variant. While it’s true that the Omicron variant did not see its heyday until weeks after the council’s vote, that month, many grocery workers pointed to the unknown risks of the emerging variant as an indication that the hazard was indeed, not over.
Nelson seemed to believe the hazard was over, however. During the meeting, Nelson, who was not a council member when the council took its optically hairy vote, said she thought the council “did the right thing in sunsetting the $4 an hour increase.”
As the only small-business owner on the council (REI memberships aside), she worried about how PCC and independent grocers would survive paying their workers more than the usual poverty wages. She also reminded the council that United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) already green-lit the end of hazard pay.
When they voted to end hazard pay, UFCW said it was grateful that the council and Mayor kept the policy as long as they had, but the union wanted to focus on more permanent wins for workers as they headed into negotiations in the next two months. According to UFCW21 Secretary-Treasurer Joe Mizrahi, many workers will try to score permanent hazard pay in their contracts. “These are permanently hazardous jobs,” Mizrahi said.
Mizrahi took issue with Seattle’s legislative approach, and worried a city-by-city strategy would create inequities among workers at stores only miles apart from one another.
However, relying on the unions to secure permanent pay raises – as both Nelson and Pedersen suggested in the council meeting – throws non-union grocery workers to the wolves. Trader Joe’s grocery stores are not unionized, leaving an amicable council as one of the workers' only levers of power. But even for unionized workers, winning a contract can take months. Mizrahi said the last UFCW contract took five months to negotiate.
Regardless, the council can always fall back on the fact that city-mandated hazard pay was always intended to be temporary. Nelson and Pedersen both brought up the wide availability of vaccines and a dip in COVID-19 cases as signals that it was time to end some pandemic-related measures.
Dr. Geoffrey Gottlieb from UW Medicine estimated that the Omicron surge peaked Jan. 10, but, as usual, we will have a better idea later. The Omicron surge that rocked hospitals appears to be falling as quickly as it rose, according to Gottlieb.
“We’re over the peak, but we’re not over the concern,” Gottlieb said.
Seattle is still in a tough spot with COVID-19, especially when we compare the numbers to a year ago, when the council decided the conditions warranted hazard pay. Gottlieb said this time last year Seattle saw a big winter surge, but it was “nowhere near as high and as fast as the Omicron surge.” The winter surge last year peaked at a seven-day average of about 200 cases per 100,000 people, but the Omicron surge this winter peaked at a seven-day average of about 2,000 cases per 100,000 people, Gottlieb said.
While the area is ten times worse off by case count and its hospitals are full, Gottlieb said fewer COVID-19 patients are in the ICU or on ventilators compared to last year. Gottlieb said this is because Seattle is highly vaccinated and Omicron appears less likely to infect the lungs and cause pneumonia.
To Gottlieb, it seems reasonable that people could return to more of their normal activities in three or four weeks, but he doesn’t want to get ahead of the data.
If Nelson and Pedersen got their way, hazard pay would end in a month, right around when Gottlieb said things might look like pre-Omicron pandemic-normal. Nelson said by that time they would know even more and could continue to follow the ever-changing numbers.