County Council OKs hazard pay for grocery workers. Here’s why they likely won’t get it

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier on Tuesday night shot down a narrowly passed County Council ordinance that would have given hazard pay to grocery store workers.

Council Democrats passed the ordinance along party lines in a 4-3 vote. It would have given grocery store workers in unincorporated Pierce County a $4 per hour raise to compensate them for being essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill would have applied to grocery stores more than 10,000 square feet in size and stores over 85,000 square feet in size with 10,000 square feet or more of their sales floor area dedicated to groceries. Council staff estimated there are 18 to 20 grocery stores in unincorporated county that would have been affected by the ordinance.

The hazard pay would have remained in effect until Washington’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Dammeier, who is a Republican, vetoed the bill half an hour after the council approved it. A veto override requires five of seven council votes, or a supermajority, and must be completed within 30 days.

Dammeier said in a letter to council that the county should be focused on reducing COVID-19 risk instead of “driving up costs.”

“If grocery stores are unsafe, make them safer, not more expensive,” his letter said. “The best way to reduce this risk is to get vaccinated.”

Angel Gonzales, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 367, said grocery store workers never had an opportunity to work from home and have been working since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s important for folks to know we have been here since day one,” Gonzales told council. “We took care of you. Now it’s time for you to take care of us.”

Council member and ordinance cosponsor Jani Hitchen ( D-Parkland) said she wanted to protect people who never asked to be essential workers and aren’t paid as much as many front-line workers.

“They never had the opportunity to work from home or shut down, and they have never had the opportunity to feel safe,” Hitchen told The News Tribune.

Republican members of the council signed a letter requesting Dammeier veto the ordinance.

“We recognize that our grocery workers have made sacrifices to serve their communities during this unprecedented time,” the letter said. “However, we are concerned that the policy created in this ordinance will put forth an inequitable situation for other essential workers throughout the county.”

Council member Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) said the additional $4 per hour could exacerbate inequities in Pierce County’s food supply that could disproportionately fall on lower-income neighborhoods.

“First, costs will be passed along to consumers, creating an undue burden on low-income residents,” he said in an email to The News Tribune. “Second, the cost of this policy may place some grocery and retail businesses in a position of having to choose whether to keep a store open.”

In the letter, the Republicans said they worried about hazard pay applying to independent cities. The ordinance would have given cities the opportunity to opt out of ordinance.

Dammeier’s veto letter said he agreed with the Republican council members concerns.

There were amendments added before the council voted. The first amendment defined grocery store workers as those who spend 51 percent of work in a Pierce County grocery store, clarifying previous questions on whether the ordinance would apply to delivery drivers. The second amendment removed the application to cities, meaning only grocery stores in the unincorporated area would be required to pay the extra money.

Democrats were not enthusiastic about limiting the hazard pay in unincorporated county.

“It’s become clear that this is a significant issue from some of our city partners, and one that they’re willing to push back on,” Chairman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) said. “But this is difficult for me, because this amendment will mean that nobody on the west side of the county will be covered by this bill, and that’s certainly the portion that I serve.”

Council member Amy Cruver (R-Eatonville) said she felt uncomfortable about the bigger impact that the legislation would have on precedence.

“This ordinance asks our county government to interfere in labor issues and grow government authority. So what precedence does that set?” she said.

Council member and bill cosponsor Ryan Mello (D-Tacoma) disagreed, saying it’s not a collective bargaining issue because some stores aren’t represented by a labor union.

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action,” he said in the meeting.

Other Washington cities and a county have passed $4 per hour of hazard pay for grocery store workers in recent months, including SeattleKing CountyBellingham, and Olympia.

This story was published by The News Tribune.