In a surprising turn of events Tuesday morning, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda announced that she intends to introduce a bill to lift the Council’s mandate, passed back in January, requiring grocery store employers to pay $4 an hour “hazard pay” to their frontline workers.
Mosqueda made the announcement at the end of a panel session in her committee meeting, in which grocery industry representatives claimed that the hazard-pay mandate was costing Seattle-area stores extraordinary sums while not making grocery stores safer, and labor representatives argued that corporate grocery chains were still not doing enough to protect workers. But at the end of the day, it seems what convinced Mosqueda to move forward with lifting the hazard pay mandate was the testimony of Dennis Worsham, Interim Director of Public Health Seattle-King County.
Worsham laid out the latest statistics for COVID case counts and vaccination rates, noting that there are now about 82 new cases daily, down 16% from last week. Meanwhile 71.7% of all Seattle residents age 12 or older have completed their COVID vaccination and 78.7% have received at least one dose. Wortham cautioned that there are still “pockets of inequity,” most notably with the Black and African American communities in Seattle, which show up in the COVID case statistics. While 97% of new COVID cases are among unvaccinated people, 27% of those cases are individuals who are Black or African American. He also highlighted ongoing work to monitor new, more transmissible variants such as the Delta variant that is now spreading throughout the United States.
In response to an email inquiry, Mosqueda’s office pointed to the health and safety concerns that were at the heart of the original ordinance as the impetus for lifting it now:
“The legislation was intended to be tied to health and safety in grocery stores, not as an economic stimulus for workers without basic standards. In the legislation, Council noted its intent to consider modifying or eliminating hazard pay requirements after four months of implementation and review of current health, safety, and economic risks of frontline work during the COVID-19 emergency. That period passed and the panel on Tuesday was a significant piece of the review. Based on the scientific data, anecdotal stories, and more, Councilmember Mosqueda felt at this point it was appropriate to consider removing the pay requirement. What was also clear is that there are significant racial disparities in COVID-vaccinations and case loads and a different set of policies/approaches may be needed in grocery stores and beyond.”
The original bill tied the lifting of the extra-pay mandate to the end of the declared civil emergency related to COVID, but Mosqueda is now proposing to lift it before that happens — assuming Mayor Jenny Durkan doesn’t lift the emergency declaration when Gov. Inslee fully reopens the state, tentatively on June 30th.
Mosqueda intends to introduce the bill in time for it to be heard at her committee meeting on July 9, with final approval by the full Council as soon as July 19th. While the original hazard-pay ordinance was passed as emergency legislation and took effect immediately after the Mayor signed it, the lifting of the hazard-pay ordinance would take effect 30 days after the Mayor presumably signs it — so grocery stores would stop being required to pay it sometime in late August.
None of the other Councilmembers at the committee meeting (Lisa Herbold, Lorena Gonzalez, Andrew Lewis, and Dan Strauss) commented on Mosqueda’s proposal to lift the hazard pay mandate, so as yet it is unclear whether Mosqueda has majority support for lifting it now (or effectively at the end of the summer).
There is one other twist to this story: the pending lawsuit against the city filed by the Northwest Grocery Association challenging the hazard-pay mandate. Earlier this year U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour ruled in favor of the city and threw out the suit, but an appeal has been filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with the opening legal brief due to be filed next week. The case doesn’t become moot when the hazard-pay mandate lifts, since the plaintiffs can ask for monetary damages to reimburse them for the extra pay they were required to give out while it was in effect. If the city were to eventually lose the case, it could be on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.