The Bellingham City Council will be voting on an ordinance this May that will provide a $4 an hour hazard pay for grocery store workers. The ordinance will affect grocery stores with 10,000 square feet and over 40 employees.
In March 2020, the Trump Administration declared COVID-19 a national emergency, which ushered in a wave of states issuing stay-at-home orders including Washington. Grocery store workers continued to work, being deemed “essential,” and were unable to stay at home.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recognized grocery store workers, along with police and firefighters, as frontline workers.
“The stress and risk of doing that all year long, interacting with hundreds to thousands of people a day is unimaginable,” said Marc Auerbach, an educational director for United Food and Commercial Workers 21.
Grocery workers who helped their employers make record profits haven’t been compensated appropriately, Auerbach said.
Grocery workers found an ally in Auerbach, who helped pass hazard pay ordinances in Seattle and Burien, Washington.
“We need to let the city council know that this has a lot of support from the community,” said Auerbach.
It’s great that Bellingham has City Council Member Lisa Anderson, who is championing the cause and brought the ordinance to the city council, he said.
Anderson, who represents Bellingham’s 5th ward, said she is passionate about helping grocery workers and that Hazard pay is a way of recognizing the sacrifices these people in the community have made.
The ordinance took a while to compose because she was spectating how the legality of it held up in Seattle, she said. Courts have upheld the legality of the hazard pay ordinances passed in Seattle and Burien. Anderson said the ordinance being proposed in Bellingham is fashioned after the one in Burien.
There are four to five other cities working similar ordinances through their municipalities in Washington and more are coming, Anderson said.
“I just wish the grocery stores, the large chains, would see the writing on the wall and do the right thing,” she said.
Anderson said she’s fighting specifically for grocery workers because their employers have made up to 30% increases in annual profits, which has been used for stock buybacks for their investors.
According to a Brookings report, top retail companies have made, on average, an extra $16.7 billion in profit over the course of the pandemic.
“The employers have made a lot of profit,” said Auerbach. “They’ve passed on billions of dollars in stock buybacks to their investors, but workers have been shouldering the risk without being recognized.”
While the number of vaccinations is on the rise, new variants have also been spreading according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Washington State Health Department reported 216 fully vaccinated citizens have contracted COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated.
The CDC is still learning how long the vaccines will prevent COVID-19.
These facts raise concerns about when the pandemic will end, but grocery workers will continue to work on the frontlines until it does.
Elisiah A. Campbell is a Bellingham grocery store worker who had his perspective changed through the ongoing pandemic.
He said he used to think his employer cared about its employees but over the course of the pandemic, “They’ve shown that all they really care about is their bottom dollar, shareholders, maximum profits and stock buybacks.”
“Associates are not allowed to ask people to put their masks on,” Campbell said. “They have to assume people have a medical condition.”
He said they have to report it to management, who have had varying degrees of success getting the customers to comply and if the customer outright refuses, they will just open a new register to check them out.
Chirs Vincent, another Bellingham grocery store worker, has been an advocate for the hazard pay ordinance.
“That little bit of money might not sound like a lot for some people, but it would mean the world to some of these workers who have burned through their vacation and sick pay due to [COVID-19],” he said.
Vincent is hoping the hazard pay ordinance will result in companies following CDC-recommended safety protocols, enforcing social distancing and other preventive measures against the virus.
“That’s basically what anyone really wanted,” he said. “They just want to be able to breathe and know they won’t come home to their loved ones and get everybody sick.”
Vincent urges the public to reach out to the city council members and advocate for grocery store workers. The ordinance has found opposition in City Council Members Gene Knutson and Pinky Vargas.
“I’ve been on the council for 20 years,” said Knutson. “We don’t get involved with labor disputes, whether it’s union or non-union.”
Knutson said supporting the ordinance could set a precedent with problems other workers are facing, and it would be wrong to single out grocery workers as the only ones who deserve this type of compensation while other workers miss out, Knutson said.
“There’s a lot of heroes out there, grocery store workers are one of them, but they’re not the only ones,” he said.
Knutson also questioned the city's ability to enforce this type of ordinance onto the big grocery stores. He said employees would have to get a lawyer and take their employers to court if they don’t receive the hazard pay as directed by the ordinance.
The ordinance will penalize employers $6,000 for failing to pay an employee hazard pay. This will be a lot more than the $4 an hour hazard pay so it will be in grocery stores’ best interest to follow the ordinance, City Council Member Anderson said.
UFCW 21 Educational Director Auerbach said he recognizes that these types of ordinances don’t solve all the problems and safety issues, but they are real recognition for what all of these workers are doing for Bellingham through the pandemic.
“It’s temporary,” said Auerbach. “It’s really something they should have been doing all along.”