Hazard pay measures for grocery workers approved elsewhere. Is Tacoma next?
Local grocery workers are calling on the Tacoma City Council to pass an ordinance requiring their employers to give them pandemic hazard pay, as has been done in other cities across the state and country.
During the virtual Community Forum at Tacoma’s City Council meeting Feb. 23, grocery workers called on the council to require area grocers to offer hourly hazard pay bonuses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Such pay was offered early in the pandemic by Kroger and Safeway/Albertsons, but the incentives ended over the summer even as workers contend the same risks remain.
A draft ordinance attached to Tuesday’s study session would establish a temporary “hazard pay requirement for additional compensation for grocery employees working within the corporate boundaries of the City of Tacoma” through the duration of the city’s COVID-19 emergency proclamation of March 13, 2020.
The draft ordinance does not state a specific dollar amount for hazard pay but indicates that City Council might be discussing a figure.
The draft ordinance defines a “grocery business” as a retail store operation located within the corporate boundaries of the City of Tacoma that is either:
▪ Over 10,000 square feet in size and that is primarily engaged in the retail sale of groceries… or,
▪ Over 85,000 square feet and with 30 percent or more of its sales floor area dedicated to the retail sale of groceries.
Convenience stores, food marts, farmers’ markets and farm stands are not considered a “grocery business” under the draft ordinance.
No final action is anticipated on a possible ordinance in the next week. It will be a topic of initial policy discussion during Tuesday’s study session, according to Melanie Harding, chief policy analyst to the mayor’s office.
Kimberly Heath, identifying herself as a Safeway worker, submitted written comment to the council ahead of Tuesday’s forum.
“I am 53 years old and every day I worry if I will make it through this pandemic,” she wrote. “The grocery workers are the ones risking our lives and the lives of our family members to keep food on the shelves for everybody. Please help us get the hazard pay we deserve.”
Safeway did not respond to request for comment from The News Tribune.
Michael Wayland said he works at Fred Meyer overnight restocking shelves.
“It’s important that we do this, and I think more importantly, instating a hazard pay ordinance could help other workers at companies like Walmart or Dollar Tree,” Wayland said.
Jeffery Temple is a media representative for Fred Meyer. On Thursday he provided emailed answers to questions from The News Tribune.
Temple said the company remained firmly against any ordinance tied to pay.
“To be clear, we aren’t opposed to wage increases,” he said. “These mandates won’t be effective at keeping anyone safer.
“We stand ready to work with the Tacoma City Council, state and local governments, to prioritize vaccine distribution to frontline employees, as quickly as possible. Prioritizing vaccinations — not arbitrary mandates for extra pay — is what will keep the frontline workers protected.”
Grocery employees were initially planning to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in February.
However, a revised timeline showed only grocery employees 50 or older eligible in February and those under 50 to be eligible in April.
UFCW Local 367 President Angel Gonzalez told The News Tribune in January that “it doesn’t seem to register for employers that we need safe working conditions, and we also need hazard pay.”
The union represents thousands of grocery workers in the Pierce-Thurston County region.
MOVEMENT GROWING ALONG WEST COAST
The battle over hazard pay has sprung up in other cities.
The Seattle City Council passed a $4-an-hour hazard pay measure for grocery workers that took effect early in February. Burien passed a similar $5 ordinance.
In California, Long Beach passed a $4 “premium pay” measure in December.
The pay boosts generally have been framed as temporary and apply to larger employers.
Fred Meyer, in its responses to The News Tribune, noted, “We appreciate that Mayor (Victoria) Woodards has always worked with businesses in the spirit of partnership. We look forward to finding solutions to advance the safety of the community.”
Company representatives did not address whether Fred Meyer has met with the city or discussed options with its workers.
“We care for our workforce, which is why our family of stores has been an industry leader in paying an average hourly wage of $19.50 in our Tacoma stores, a rate that exceeds $24.60 an hour when accounting for healthcare, 401(K) and pensions that so many of our competitors choose not to offer,” according to Fred Meyer’s statement.
Fred Meyer also noted that “the organization has invested $1.5 billion since the start of the pandemic to both reward associates and to implement dozens of safety measures. Additionally, in November we announced an investment of nearly $1 billion into a new pension fund to help secure and stabilize pensions for tens of thousands of their associates through June 2028.”
UNION PUSHES BACK ON CLOSINGS
Sarah Cherin is executive vice president and chief of staff, political & community director for UFCW Local 21. Cherin said at a press briefing Tuesday that any threats of store closures or reductions in hours were simply means of retailers trying to score “political points” and instill fear in hopes of stopping councils from considering any measure.
She added the union’s workers will continue their efforts.
Conversations between union members and councils, she said, are happening in Bellingham, Port Angeles and Bainbridge Island, among other places, with hopes for passage soon by the King County Council.
“It’s fair to say that there are lots of workers talking to their local city council members in jurisdictions all over the state,” she said.
Tom Geiger, UFCW 21 media representative, said the preferred path would be for the chains to recognize the need nationally, not by individual local council action.
“When they had hazard pay in place in March and April and the first half of May, it wasn’t like they went town by town through tens of thousands of communities during the first week of the pandemic and asked local councils if they would put in place hazard pay. They just did it,” Geiger said.
Would Fred Meyer close more stores if a Tacoma ordinance is passed? No direct yes/no response was offered from Fred Meyer representatives.
“The decision to close any store is never taken lightly and is made on a case-by-case basis based on the financial soundness of each individual store. … But in every case, we need a level playing field to deliver on these commitments,” the company told The News Tribune.
COUNCIL RESPONSE SO FAR
Some Tacoma City Council members spoke in support of hazard pay for grocery workers at Tuesday’s community forum.
“I think it’s time for the grocery stores to step up and make that commitment,” said Council member Chris Beale.
Beale said he’d met with union members and heard “disheartening and disappointing” stories about how large grocery stores have not property treated essential workers.
“They are literally in those positions every day and don’t really have an option – it’s not like a grocery store can close. So those folks have to do that work and I just really respect the heck out of all of them,” Beale said.
Council member Lillian Hunter said on Tuesday she looked forward to exploring an ordinance on hazard pay.