PORT ANGELES — A split Port Angeles City Council has rejected a COVID-19 hazard pay mandate for grocery store employees in the city.
The council’s amended proposal to require $2 per hour hazard pay for front-line grocery store workers at chains with more than 250 employees failed in a 4-3 vote Tuesday night.
Voting in favor of the hazard pay ordinance were Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, Brendan Meyer and Deputy Mayor Navarra Carr.
Mike French, Charlie McCaughan, LaTrisha Suggs and Mayor Kate Dexter voted no.
“I know for some people this is very disappointing,” Dexter said after the vote.
“For what it’s worth, the level of engagement that we’ve seen around this issue is unusual for things that we deal with in this community, and for that I am grateful.”
Ten of 13 speakers who left voicemail messages for the council’s public comment period — and two of three who gave testimony in real time — said they favored the hazard pay ordinance.
“We owe grocery workers a huge debt,” Schromen-Wawrin said during an hour-long council debate Tuesday.
“We are lucky that we just ran out of toilet paper and didn’t have a full-blown shortage of food. And at the same time, grocery stores have made tremendous profits during the pandemic and have not shared those profits with the people who have made that possible for them.”
Schromen-Wawrin made a motion to approve the ordinance with amendments that struck emergency language, thereby eliminating the need for a 5-2 supermajority to pass, and excluded truck fleet drivers and corporate staff employees.
Dexter allowed Schromen-Wawrin’s amendments to stand with his motion to approve the ordinance.
Carr then moved to amend the ordinance by reducing the amount of hazard pay from $4 per hour to $2 per hour and to cover grocery store chains with 250 or more employees rather than companies with 500 or more employees, thereby including Saars Super Saver in the hazard pay mandate.
Carr’s amendments were approved by unanimous consent.
The amended ordinance would have affected two stores: Safeway at 110 E. Third St. and Saars Super Saver Foods at 114 E. Lauridsen Blvd.
The Safeway at 2709 E. U.S. Highway 101 and the Port Angeles Walmart at 3411 E. Kolonels Way are outside the city limits.
“We should put working people over corporate profits, and we should require that responsibility when corporations have the means to look out for the people but choose not to,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
Larger cities like Seattle, Olympia and Long Beach, Calif., have required hazard pay for grocery store workers.
The $4-per-hour Seattle law survived a legal challenge in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
“I think really what this comes down to is the way that city of Long Beach framed it, that this is hero pay,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“I think it’s our job to take care of the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Port Angeles.”
Suggs and other council members said hazard pay should be addressed at the county level.
“I struggle with knowing that we have Safeway just across the city boundaries there on the east side of Port Angeles that won’t be inclusive of this,” Suggs said.
“It needs to be at the county level, not at the city level.”
Suggs lamented that grocery chains do not provide what she considered to be a family wage job.
“I am calling out all these grocery store companies that you should be paying family wage jobs,” Suggs said.
“It used to be a family wage job, but it’s not anymore these days, and it should be.”
French said federal tax cuts during the Reagan administration in the 1980s benefited large corporations and their CEOs. The tax code should be changed in a “very big way” to tax the highest earners 70 percent or more, French said.
“It’s really hard for me to support an ordinance that is targeting one or two businesses,” French said of the proposal.
“Navarra’s amendment helps, but it’s still literally just targeting two businesses.”
French noted that the proposal would not impact Country Aire Natural Foods at 200 W. First St.
“We’re not including them not because of any statement of value towards their employees (but) just because we think that for some reason or another, the corporate owners of the other grocery stores are more deserving of punishment,” French said.
“That on some level just rubs me the wrong way. I struggle with that.”
McCaughan and Meyer agreed with the assertion that hazard pay should be considered at the county level.
“I wasn’t really in favor of supporting it until these amendments,” Meyer said, “and now I’m probably going to vote in favor of it.”
“It seems like we’re singling stores out,” McCaughan said.
Carr said the city could spur Clallam County to action on hazard pay by passing the ordinance.
“We’re in the rare position where we actually get to affect change, and this is meaningful change for a lot of people in Port Angeles and our surrounding areas,” Carr said.
Schromen-Wawrin cited a Brookings Institute study “Windfall profits and deadly risks” to buttress his argument for a hazard pay mandate.
“It’s that combination of ability to pay, unwillingness to voluntarily pay, and the work that people have been doing on the ground to make those profits possible,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“So in terms of the theoretical points that Council member French made, we don’t create federal tax policy, we don’t create federal fiscal policy, but this is how we can push back against that income inequity.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.