Olympia to require grocery stores provide hazard pay

By Brandon Block 

The Olympian

Olympia will require large grocery stores to pay their employees $4 more per hour in hazard pay beginning next month.

The ordinance, which city council passed on Tuesday by a 6-0 vote, is intended to recognize the risks faced by grocery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One council member, Renata Rollins, was absent for the vote but briefly appeared to express support for the measure.

“Olympia residents want Olympia to be a leader in wage equity and a leader in workplace safety, and this is a small ask in my opinion,” said council member Jim Cooper, who estimated it could affect about 450 workers citywide.

The vote followed months of advocacy from grocery workers and unions. According to Cooper, grocery chains initially offered hazard pay at the beginning of the pandemic, and then revoked it despite many showing soaring profits during the pandemic, which Cooper called “perplexing.”

“It’s shameful to see some of the record profits put up by these corporations, and then taking away the hazard pay for these very same people that have been serving us,” said council member Lisa Parshley.

Though she ultimately voted for it, Mayor Cheryl Selby said before the vote that she was “on the fence,” because the policy singled out one specific industry, helping some workers but not others.

“It still feels very very awkward for me to pick one winner in this case,” Selby said.

Grocery workers, while deemed essential, have not been treated that way by their employers, said Charlotte Verdini-Elliot, a Shelton resident who works at Fred Meyer.

“Workers continue to be harassed and bullied by a public that has politicized this pandemic,” Verdini-Elliot said, noting that one of her co-workers contracted COVID-19 on the job.

“I see a lot of people hurting, a lot of people working two and three jobs and still barely covering their rent,” said Andrew Clark, an employee at Haggen grocery store in west Olympia, which is owned by Albertsons.

The hazard pay requirement takes effect on May 1, and lasts as long as Washington is under a state of emergency as declared by the governor, with the opportunity to revisit the policy in four months.

Ralph’s Thirftway and Bayview Thriftway will not be affected by the law, which only applies to grocery stores with more than 250 employees, City Attorney Mark Barber said during the council meeting. Farmers markets and convenience stores are also excluded from the requirement.

Cooper noted that Trader Joes already provides its employees with hazard pay.

An amendment approved by council also excludes truck drivers and corporate office staff, which was requested by Holly Chisa, a lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association.

Both Chisa and Tammie Hetrick, President of Washington Food Industry Association, spoke against the hazard pay proposal, saying that it singled out grocery stores but doesn’t apply to other types of retail, like pharmacies. Those two industry groups also sued the cities of Seattle and Burien in February over their ordinances requiring hazard pay for grocery workers.

Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, promptly closed two QFC stores in Seattle and more in Los Angeles following each city’s hazard pay laws, despite the company recording a 90% increase in profits in 2020.

Elsewhere in Washington, the city of Edmonds was the latest to enact their own hazard pay law just last week. Grocery workers in Tacoma and Lacey have advocated for hazard pay as well, but neither city has taken action on it yet.

At a Lacey City Council meeting in February, two Fred Meyer workers urged the city to adopt hazard pay, noting the dangers they faced at work, which they described as a COVID-19 “hotspot.”

Council members did not respond to the employees at that meeting.

In response to an inquiry from The Olympian on Tuesday about whether the city would consider requiring hazard pay, Lacey City Manager Scott Spence wrote that city council “has not had a full discussion or taken a position on this issue at present.”