By Jack Mayne

A proposed Burien move to give grocery store workers hazardous pay for working while the COVID-19 virus is raging through the city was passed by the Burien City Council at a meeting on Monday night, Feb. 1, 2021.

Prior to Council action, individuals and labor unions hard pressed the city to pass the law granting hazardous pay to workers who maintain their jobs during the siege.

The Council will hold a Special Meeting this coming Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 to further discuss, amend, and/or possibly rescind the ordinance (download agenda packet PDF here).

“Because the adopted Ordinance No. 756 was only a draft and was not yet prepared to be adopted, Council requested a Special Meeting on February 8, 2021, to discuss potential amendments to the ordinance prior to the effective date of Ordinance No. 756, which is February 10, 2021,” the agenda item says.

City Manager Brian Wilson is advising that council “Rescind Ordinance No. 756 and take no action on proposed Ordinance No. 757 at this time.”

Masks cause anger
Melissa, who said she works at Fred Meyer, told the Council there was a “strong urgency to vote yes on the hazard pay,” and that “it has become more and more stressful because of the pandemic.”

She said many people without masks are coming into the Burien Fred Meyer store, and that one customer “got very angry at me” for offering him a face mask. She also said at one point there were 19 Fred Meyer employees out with COVID there, “and we are still exposed.”

Sheryl Saechao said she has been “a loyal cashier” at the Burien Fred Meyer for 23 years.

“I believe, very strongly, that grocery workers should receive hazardous pay,” Saechao said. “Customers don’t follow social distancing rules,” and she worries about becoming affected by COVID-19. Having hazardous pay would allow “us to plan for the worst case scenario.”

Another employee said grocery prices are increasing at a rapid rate and she needs more income to support her family.

A woman began working at Safeway when her personal business “stalled because of COVID” and her husband has stage-four cancer. Others said frontline workers “deserve this compensation.”

Sean Murphy, a Safeway employee, said the workload has increased since the pandemic and “big name grocery stores are making record profits during one of the worst pandemics in history and they are doing that on the broken backs of employees. We deserve hazard pay (for) the dangers we put ourselves in. We risk exposing ourselves and our loved ones to this dangerous virus.”

Close rather than pay
A wire service reported on Thursday (Feb. 4) that two grocery stores in Southern California will shutter in April in response to a local “hero pay” measure requiring a $4-an-hour increase for grocery workers during the pandemic.

Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer and QFC and more than a dozen other grocery chains, says it would close Ralph’s and a Food 4 Less. The two grocery stores in Southern California will shutter in April in response to a local “hero pay” measure requiring a $4-an-hour increase for grocery workers during the pandemic.

Kroger announced this week that it would close a pair of Long Beach stores — a Ralphs and a Food 4 Less — specifically citing the ordinance the city’s mayor signed into law late last month. Long Beach was the first in California to introduce a measure requiring some grocery retailers to give workers a temporary increase.

Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Andrea Reay said her organization understands why the Council is considering a draft ordinance for hazardous pay for grocery workers, but “we do have concerns about the broad application and potential unintended consequences we wanted to share with you.”

She said grocery workers account for 5 percent of COVID outbreaks, “far less” than other industries, and the proposed ordinance will not protect the “workers most at risk.” The small, independent and non-publicly traded stores “have not seen a profit or a very slim one” in the past year, although “many large ones have.”

The larger ones can absorb the cost of a pandemic, but the small ones cannot, said Reay.

“Burien already has several neighborhoods considered food deserts and we would not want the well-meaning intention of this ordinance to exaggerate an already fragile food access system in our community,” Reay told the Council.

The most important thing is to make the virus vaccine “readily available” for grocery store workers, said Reay.

Affecting worker’s lives
Faye Guenther, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 21 which represents grocery workers “across Puget Sound,” lives in Burien,

“I urge you to pass hazard pay and reject any fear mongering that the Chamber or the grocers raise tonight,” Guenther said. “As you all know, Burien grocery store workers have risked their lives to feed and care for all of us.

“Grocery store workers need hazardous pay,” because of COVID said Guenther. “The pandemic made everything different for grocery store workers affecting every part of their lives. Grocery workers must go to great lengths to keep themselves and their families safe.

“Grocery store workers carry a fear within them every day that they will get sick from an invisible virus and bring that virus home to their family.” One in Burien died, Guenther said.

“Listen to the workers and pass hazardous pay,” she said.

Vaccinations more important
PCC markets say they rarely weigh in on issues facing the Burien City Council, but it was ”so worried about the impact of the hazard pay ordinance that you are considering on independent grocers like us, that we feel we have no choice other than to speak up.”

PCC Community Markets is a food cooperative based in Seattle, with stores in Burien and West Seattle. It has over 58,000 members, and is the largest consumer-owned food cooperative in the United States. It was originally Puget Consumers Co-op, and became PCC Natural Markets in 1998 and PCC Community Markets in 2017.

Vaccinations are more important than pay, PCC said in a statement.

Reconsider Burien ordinance
The Burien Council should “weigh the impact of the ordinance you are considering on local, independent grocers,” PCC said in a statement.

“Collective focus should be on vaccination. Grocery workers need expanded access to vaccines to keep them protected from COVID both at home and at work.”

PCC has fewer infections
PCC Community Markets have had only 36 of its 1,710 staff contract COVID since last February. The coop says that the infections were determined to be contracted at work and 33 of those infections were determined to result from infection at home or outside of work.

PCC says its staff “should be protected throughout their day – including at home – so that we can keep them on the job and healthy.”

It said it is offering a $25 gift card to staff members who get vaccinated to move its workforce in that direction. (Burien) should be focused on keeping all grocery workers on the job by taking steps to ensure their swift vaccination.

Grocery stores safe
Washington grocery stores are safe places to work. It is safer to work in a grocery store than work in goods production or government.

A Washington State Department of Labor and Industries report issued in November 2020 said that only 5 percent of all non-health care COVID workplace outbreaks occurred in grocery stores, and grocery stores accounted for less than 2.8 percent of all workplace outbreaks.

PCC said, that, in contrast, the goods-producing industry accounted for 29 percent and government accounted for 7 percent of all workplace outbreaks. “PCC has not had any confirmed workplace outbreaks. This is a testament to our commitment to workplace safety.”

Virus cuts co-op profit
The Seattle area cooperative said independent grocers have a slim profit margin. Large scale grocers may see a decent profit margin, but most independent grocers have less than a 5 tenths of a percent profit margin, according to the Washington Food Industry Association. “The cost of COVID response, including the safety controls that we have committed to in order to keep our staff safe and the additional pay, have cut our margins to the bone.”

“This ordinance disproportionately harms local, independent grocers like PCC Community Markets. In 2020, we spent more than $4M on COVID related employee and operating costs, including staff member appreciation pay, bonuses and in-store safety protocols. That is more than 2x our 2019 profits and almost 2x of projected 2020 profits. Although independent grocers are proud to have provided a safe and healthy shopping and working environment, our profit margins are even more slim than previous.”