Port Angeles considers ordering hazard pay for grocery workers

Eyes are on Seattle challenge of similar law; first reading April 6

PORT ANGELES — The City Council will consider approving next month a mandate of hazard pay for grocery store workers in Port Angeles, pending a legal challenge to Seattle’s mandatory hazard pay ordinance.

The City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to direct staff to prepare a grocery store worker hazard pay ordinance for a first reading April 6. The council would likely vote on the measure after a second reading April 20.

Details of the proposal, including the amount of hazard pay, will be fleshed out following a March 18 hearing in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on a preliminary injunction filed against the city of Seattle.

Seattle was sued by Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association after it mandated $4-per-hour hazard pay for frontline grocery store workers Feb. 3.

All council members voiced support for essential workers, but several raised concerns about the potential ramifications of a hazard pay requirement.

Thirty-two Port Angeles grocery store employees and their supporters championed hazard pay during a public comment period Tuesday.

Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin added the item to the council’s agenda in response to the public sentiment, saying the COVID-19 pandemic was “not over by any means.”

“We’re hoping that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and the rates are going to continue to go down, but the cases that we’re seeing right now are among people in their 30s and 40s,” Schromen-Wawrin said in a six-hour council meeting.

“I think it’s still a high risk, as we’ve heard from the numerous public comments.”

The two Port Angeles stores that would be affected by the ordinance are the 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 in unincorporated Clallam County.

Small grocery stores and convenience stores with fewer than 250 employees would not be impacted by the ordinance as it was discussed Tuesday.

A Safeway public affairs representative in Boise, Idaho, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) 21 representative Ryan Degouveia said Port Angles grocery store employees had made essential contributions during COVID-19.

“Without them, we would have been fighting over the last scraps of produce, not the last scraps of toilet paper when the pandemic started,” Degouveia told the City Council.

“This is an extraordinarily hazardous time for them, and the companies are making record profits.

“Safeway-Albertsons has had a 200 percent increase in profits this last year with the pandemic,” Degouveia added.

“We’re not trying to punish the companies, but we are trying to stand with our essential workers.”

Degouveia was one of four to testify in favor of hazard pay for grocery store workers in real-time.

Twenty-eight others left voicemail messages that were played for the council and made part of the public record.

“These frontline essential workers have not received this hourly (hazard) compensation in over six months, and unfortunately the risks are still with us,” said Lisa Decker of Indivisible Sequim.

“The large chains have seen windfall profits and they can easily afford this. As many other communities in Washington have already done, let’s support our friends and neighbors here who are essential workers.”

The city of Burien approved a $5-per-hour hazard bonus for grocery store workers after the Seattle measure took effect.

“I just think it’s unconscionable that people are profiting off of the suffering of other people, and that some of the lowest-paid workers in our community are the people who we rely on the most, especially now,” council member Navarra Carr said.

“If we can help them be fiscally sustainable while they’re putting their lives on the line for us, then yeah, I absolutely support it, pending what happens in Seattle.”

Council member Charlie McCaughan said: “We all feel like they deserve hazardous pay.

“I feel like medical workers deserve it, police, firemen, whoever has been out there since day one.

“But is it up to a municipality to get involved in union employees?” McCaughan asked.

“It’s very complex, and I’d hate to see us put our foot in the water before we see how deep it is.”

Mayor Kate Dexter noted that city employees received raises but did not collect hazard pay.

“I’m concerned about equity,” she said.

Dexter added that two QFC stores in Seattle were closed as company officials attributed hazard pay to their poor performance.

“That’s a real concern to me, too,” Dexter said.

“I’m just feeling concerned about moving forward, and I don’t want to disregard what folks are going though. It is super frustrating that they are turning to the city when their own corporation should be taking care of them.”

Schromen-Wawrin, a constitutional attorney, said the trade group’s lawsuit against the city of Seattle contains a “pretty weak argument” based on collective bargaining and unfair labor practice law.

“It’s a really interesting claim, because it is essentially saying that the National Labor Relations Act preempts a local government or a state, for that matter, from regulating an area of conduct intended to not be regulated,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

“Their argument is that because there is a collective bargaining agreement, that falls under the National Labor Relations Act machinist preemption, or this preemption that is supposed to be unregulated. It’s kind of like taking us back to the Lochner era if that argument were to fly in court.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].