In a surprising turn of events Tuesday morning, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda announced that she intends to introduce a bill to lift the Council’s mandate, passed back in January, requiring grocery store employers to pay $4 an hour “hazard pay” to their frontline workers.
Mosqueda made the announcement at the end of a panel session in her committee meeting, in which grocery industry representatives claimed that the hazard pay mandate was costing Seattle-area stores extraordinary sums while not making grocery stores safer, and labor representatives argued that corporate grocery chains were still not doing enough to protect workers. But at the end of the day, it seems what convinced Mosqueda to move forward with lifting the hazard pay mandate was the testimony of Dennis Worsham, Interim Director of Public Health Seattle-King County. Worsham laid out the latest statistics for COVID case counts and vaccination rates, noting that there are now about 82 new cases daily, down 16% from last week, while 71.7% of all Seattle residents age 12 or older have completed their COVID vaccination and 78.7% have received at least one dose. Wortham cautioned that there are still “pockets of inequity,” most notably with the Black and African American communities in Seattle, which show up in the COVID case statistics: while 97% of new COVID cases are among unvaccinated people, 27% of those cases are individuals who are Black or African American. He also highlighted ongoing work to monitor new, more transmissible variants such as the Delta variant that is now spreading throughout the United States.
In response to an email inquiry, Mosqueda’s office pointed to the health and safety concerns that were at the heart of the original ordinance as the impetus for lifting it now:
“The legislation was intended to be tied to health and safety in grocery stores, not as an economic stimulus for workers without basic standards. In the legislation, Council noted its intent to consider modifying or eliminating hazard pay requirements after four months of implementation and review of current health, safety, and economic risks of frontline work during the COVID-19 emergency. That period passed and the panel on Tuesday was a significant piece of the review. Based on the scientific data, anecdotal stories, and more, Councilmember Mosqueda felt at this point it was appropriate to consider removing the pay requirement. What was also clear is that there are significant racial disparities in COVID-vaccinations and case loads and a different set of policies/approaches may be needed in grocery stores and beyond.”
The original bill tied the lifting of the extra-pay mandate to the end of the declared civil emergency related to COVID, but Mosqueda is now proposing to lift it before that happens — assuming the Mayor doesn’t lift the emergency declaration when Governor Inslee fully reopens the state, tentatively on June 30th. Holly Chisa of the Northwest Grocery Association claimed that of thirty five jurisdictions that enacted hazard pay mandates for grocery workers, thirty were tied to specific timeframes rather than to the rollback of an emergency order. The original bill also left in place enforcement, recordkeeping, and anti-retaliation mechanisms for three years after the mandate itself ends, so that the Office of Labor Standards can investigate any cases of the extra pay not being paid out by employers while it was in effect. According to her office, Mosqueda’s proposal would also leave the three extra years in place.
Mosqueda intends to introduce the bill in time for it to be heard at her committee meeting on July 9, with final approval by the full Council as soon as July 19th. While the original hazard-pay ordinance was passed as emergency legislation and took effect immediately after the Mayor signed it, the lifting of the hazard-pay ordinance would take effect 30 days after the Mayor presumably signs it — so grocery stores would stop being required to pay it sometime in late August.
While the grocery-industry representatives on the panel made it clear that their members wanted the hazard-pay mandate to end, the labor representatives were more circumspect, neither arguing for it to end nor suggesting that it needed to continue. They were clear, however, in their beliefs that safety issues still existed at grocery stores and that “uncertainties” still exist with the COVID virus and new variants — especially while young children are still unvaccinated and racial and ethnic disparities persist in vaccinations. Mosqueda’s office echoed those beliefs:
“It’s clear that hazard pay is a proxy measure for some bigger problems we have (e.g. enforcing health and safety standards, support for essential workers) and that racial disparity in healthcare across the board needs to be addressed. This policy was built with labor advocates as well as grocery employer advocates and I think it went a long way that we held true to our word to reconsider the policy early; we need a lot more collaboration on policies to work towards a stronger Seattle.”
None of the other Councilmembers at the committee meeting (Herbold, Gonzalez, Lewis, Strauss) commented on Mosqueda’s proposal to lift the hazard pay mandate, so as yet it is unclear whether Mosqueda has majority support for lifting it now (or effectively at the end of the summer).
There is one other twist to this story: the pending lawsuit against the city filed by the Northwest Grocery Association challenging the hazard-pay mandate. Earlier this year U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour ruled in favor of the city and threw out the suit, but an appeal has been filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with the opening legal brief due to be filed next week. The case doesn’t become moot when the hazard-pay mandate lifts, since the plaintiffs can ask for monetary damages to reimburse them for the extra pay they were required to give out while it was in effect. If the city were to eventually lose the case, it could be on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.
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