Safeway at 101 Auburn Way South. File photo

Safeway at 101 Auburn Way South. File photo

Auburn debates hazard pay ordinance for grocery workers, delays vote

Auburn City Council member Larry Brown suggested to his peers in March that the city consider mandating $4-per-hour hazardous pay increase for retail grocery workers at large, corporate-owned grocery stores like Fred Meyer, Safeway and Haggens within city limits while the COVID-19 epidemic rages.

Because every day, Brown said, workers at those stores put their lives and the lives of their family members at risk. A proposed ordinance that sprang from his idea leaves out smaller, mom-and-pop operations with fewer than 250 workers.

“This ordinance is intended to recognize the hard work and the potential hazards of all these workers that come to work every day and serve the residents of Auburn in a very, very hazardous environment,” Brown told councilmembers getting their first look at the proposed legislation at a study session on April 26.

Brown’s council peers raised enough questions and concerns Monday to ensure the measure will not come up for a vote May 3, as Brown had anticipated coming into the meeting.

Chief among the questions: what would the measure’s financial impact be on individual retail grocery workers, and how much would it cost the stores in total?

Over the next two weeks, city staff will research those questions before bringing them to a study session on May 10, a week before a possible up and down vote at the May 17 regular council meeting.

Brown said his own research showed that the total financial impact on the stores indicated, where grocery workers earn between $18.50 to $21 an hour, he said, would amount to $1.7 million overall for the life of the ordinance.

That sum, Brown continued, would not place an undue financial burden on the stores, which, he said, realized a 40 percent increase in corporate profits in 2020, an extra $16.9 billion over 2019, mostly because of all the people unable to eat at restaurants suddenly shopping for food to cook at home.

Brown quoted state Department of Health figures showing that of the 198 retail establishments that have had COVID outbreaks over the last year in the state, 181 of them were large grocery stores, and four people working in those big stores died from the pandemic.

“I feel doing hazard pay is the least can do for our workers who are putting their lives and families’ lives on the line for us,” said Councilmember Chris Stearns.

Councilmember Yolanda Trout-Manuel asked Brown a question she said had bothered several of her constituents: that is, whether Brown should have had anything to do with writing the proposed ordinance because, they said, as president of the Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO, he might be in a position to represent the workers who would get that extra $4 an hour bump in pay.

Should the city council approve the ordinance, Brown replied, he would have nothing to do with any of the unions that represent the grocery workers of any of the stores in question.

Brown was taken aback when Councilmember James Jeyaraj told him that one of his neighbors had calculated that the ordinance would cost each store $5 million.

“I think I know where this is coming from,” said Jeyaraj, “but can we as the city do an analysis, just to be on the safe side?”

“That would be role of this council, but I’m not sure where your neighbor got that figure,” Brown responded.

Councilmember Bob Baggett said while he is sympathetic to the grocery workers, and willing to hear Brown out, the city of Auburn should not be mandating anything to the stores, which, he noted, have already taken protective steps including labor intensive cleaning and setting up protective barriers between workers and customers.

“I think that the bottom line as far as I am concerned is that I don’t know why our city is getting involved in this kind of thing,” Baggett said. “Because, if you look at our first responders, if you look at our medical people, our police and firefighters, why are we picking this particular group of people to provide hazard pay instead of these others who have been right on the forefront of this?”

Last year, Baggett added, would have been the perfect opportunity to do this, but given improving COVID conditions he said he hoped would continue, if council approves the ordinance, it would not be in time to do all that much for people.

The hazard pay would go into effect five days after a public announcement of its passage went out on the first Thursday after the council vote. It would expire either when Gov. Jay Inslee declares the state’s emergency over, or on Dec. 31, 2021, or when the city council finds it appropriate to terminate it.

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