Hazard pay measure for grocery workers on precipice

Port Angeles City Council leans toward no vote

PORT ANGELES — A city COVID-19 hazard-pay proposal that would mandate a temporary $4 hourly wage increase for grocery store workers — and which would affect Safeway — is on the verge of failure.

After more than a dozen mostly food-store workers pleaded for passage Tuesday at a City Council meeting, Mayor Kate Dexter polled the six other council members.

As an emergency ordinance, it requires a five-person supermajority for passage and three votes to fail.

Dexter, Mike French and Charlie McCaughan said they opposed the measure. Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin favored it, Navarra Carr said she saw its good points but was undecided, and LaTrisha Suggs and Brendan Meyer said they hadn’t made up their minds but had reservations about it.

The pay increase would take effect following approval and end when Gov. Jay Inslee terminates the statewide COVID-19 state of emergency.

It affects stores of at least 500 employees overall, which covers Safeway at 110 E. Third St. in Port Angeles but not the Saars Super Saver Foods chain, which has a store at the 114 E. Lauridsen Blvd.

Company General Manager Kyle Saar said Wednesday the Saar corporation has about 450 grocery workers overall and that he is “100 percent” sure it does not have 500.

The ordinance has a second reading April 20, after which the City Council, which had voted unanimously to have the proposed law drawn up, will consider passage.

Schromen-Wawrin said Wednesday that council members could vote to make it a nonemergency ordinance that would require a simple majority of four votes before council members declare yea or nay.

But Dexter said Wednesday she does not expect to change her mind on the proposal and would vote against lowering the bar for passage.

Like Suggs and Meyer, Dexter cited the narrowness of the proposed law.

“My real thing is not to diminish what grocery workers have done. I certainly appreciate them,” Dexter said.

“I really feel like there are a lot of other people that have shown up in ways that did not feel comfortable to them this year, so it does not make sense for me to single out one area.”

Dexter said she would not support a broader measure, either, out of fear that workers would be laid off, and that the measure is too closely tied to the state of emergency to pass it as a nonemergency ordinance.

The Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Port Angeles Business Association are opposed to the proposal.

Most commenters left voicemail messages for the hearing. Five people spoke against it while 13 mostly Saars employees, who work at the site at 114 E. Lauridsen Blvd., spoke in favor of it.

Saars workers said the store was unsanitary and that the company had profited hugely during the pandemic.

“People on the front lines deserve the extra hazard pay because we are putting ourselves at risk,” one woman said.

Kyle Saar declined to be interviewed Wednesday on the ordinance or comments made Tuesday at the council meeting, saying the company will submit a written statement directly to the City Council.

One commenter said she works for the Port Angeles Safeway.

“I have been working with fear of virus since the pandemic started,” she said. “I made a will just in case.”

She was worried about the spread of variants.

“I continue to work with fear, so this hazardous pay will be a big mental help during this scary time,” she said.

Former Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire, speaking on behalf of the PABA, and former council member Grant Munro, a business owner, were among those opposed to council approval.

“I do not think it’s in their purview to raise wages for grocery workers or change wages for any business for that matter,” Munro said.

“That’s just not the mission of the City Council.”

City Attorney Bill Bloor began the session by telling council members that they could take the action based on its powers as a code city and a recent federal court decision on Seattle’s hazard pay ordinance, a decision that has been appealed.

Whether the city should decide to pass the ordinance is “a matter of policy and philosophy of government,” he said.

“It’s a classic division, among us who are more conservative, and those among us who are more liberal. Both sides can make valid arguments, and both sides can be heard.”

McCaughan said he worried about the company backlash.

“We’re just opening up a big can of worms here,” he said.

“Who are we going to help next? Are we going to help the public transit drivers? Are we going to help pharmacy techs? Are we gong to help dental hygienists? Who’s next on the list?”

There should be a broader, countywide effort for “more equity across the board for all of our grocery store workers,” Suggs said.

“A countywide ordinance seems to be a more equitable solution to this.”

Meyer noted some constituents live in Port Angeles and work in the Safeway outside the city limit.

“To [essential] workers, it’s really important that, at the very least, even if something doesn’t happen with us, like LaTricia said, to really shine a spotlight on the county to help bring equity to the workers as well.”

Many of those who spoke at the meeting “have said that we shouldn’t support our workers, that we shouldn’t say they are deserving of hazard pay because they’re working in hazardous conditions,” Carr said.

“It’s just beyond me,” she said.

“I also don’t like being bullied by businesses,” Carr said.

“Living in fear that Safeway is gong to be retaliatory against us is a great reason to say, ‘screw you, man, we’re not gong to live in fear of that,’ ” she said.

A Safeway spokesperson did not return repeated calls about the ordinance left Wednesday on the company’s media line in Bellevue.

She said she is also weighing “the fairness” in not covering other essential workers.

“We’re the people it falls to, to put pressure on the county to do the right thing,” she said.

According to Schromen-Wawrin, $13.90 is the starting wage for a bakery or deli worker in Port Angeles.

“Does any council member want to be working for $13.90 an hour during this pandemic?” he said.

“If we were considering mandating hazard pay for all essential workers around the city, we’d be hearing from people that this was going to harm small businesses, how could you do this for small businesses,” he said.

“Really, what it is, is an argument mostly on ideological grounds that people don’t like government helping to make sure that working families have what they need to live well into the future.”

Mike French said he favored tabling the ordinance.

“I think we’ve kind of gotten out of our lane, ” he said.

He said the council does not have evidence that Safeway has profited from the pandemic or other pro-ordinance claims made at the hearing Tuesday.

Approving the ordinance could damage “strategic partnerships” with the PABA and chamber, on which French sits as a board member.

“The number one thing I want to say to these front-line workers is, get vaccinated,” he said.

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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