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Pierce County Council to consider requiring COVID-19 hazard pay for grocery workers

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 6 days ago Josephine Peterson, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

May 4—Grocery store workers in Pierce County cities and the unincorporated area could be in for a $4 per hour pay increase.

Pierce County Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to require hazard pay for grocery store workers.

The ordinance would require grocery stores to pay employees the additional $4 per hour to compensate for the health risks of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are asking them to keep us fed," bill co-sponsor Jani Hitchen (D-Parkland) told The News Tribune. "We need them to show up every day and take care of themselves, and we need to avoid an outbreak at grocery stores. They never had the opportunity to work from home or shut down, and they have never had the opportunity to feel safe."

Hazard pay is described by the federal Department of Labor as "additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship" and "work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress ..."

Co-sponsor, Ryan Mello (D-Tacoma) said it's important to pass hazard pay because COVID-19 case rates are extremely high in the fourth wave, despite vaccines being available to everyone.

"The hazard is still very much alive and well unfortunately," Mello said in a text message to The News Tribune. "This is premium pay for a hazard. It doesn't eliminate the hazard. It compensates for it a little."

In the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department's most recent data as of April 29, 15 percent of COVID-19 business outbreaks within the last 28 days, 45 reported cases, have occurred at grocery stores. An outbreak is defined as two cases within 14 days of each other, a plausible link between the cases, and one case occurring within the last 28 days. Only one business sector — child care — has more reported outbreaks with 46 COVID-19 cases.

Mello said $4 is where the county landed on hourly pay. Some Washington cities and a county have passed $4 per hour of hazard pay for grocery store workers, including Seattle, King County, Bellingham and Olympia.

The ordinance would apply to grocery stores more than 10,000 square feet in size and stores over 85,000 square feet in size with 10,000 square feet or more of its sales floor area dedicated to groceries.

Hitchen told The News Tribune that the ordinance is targeted at stores like Safeway and Walmart.

Convenience stores, food marts, farmers' markets and farm stands would not be covered by the ordinance.

The hazard pay would remain in effect until Gov. Jay Inslee ends the state of emergency regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

If a grocery store does not implement the hazard pay, the county could bring a civil action against the employer, the bill said.

Many grocery store employees called in to the Human Services Committee meeting on Friday to support the bill.

Angel Gonzalez, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 367, estimated this legislation would impact 10,000 families.

"We all know what the risks are. We all know what has been happening at the stores. We really need this to happen for grocery workers in Pierce County," he told the council on April 30.

Gonzalez said he was disappointed in the amendment that allows cities to opt out of the bill.

"Grocery workers have been there for us. They have stocked our shelves. They have checked our groceries. They have cut our meat," he said. "It's time to take care of them."

Holly Chisa with the Northwest Grocery Association told the council the organization opposes the ordinance.

"We are concerned that council is making a decision for local government," she said in the public comments of the meeting.

Chisa also said more details need to be provided to grocery stores, like whether delivery drivers would be included as grocery store workers, and a start date.

"We need some pieces to effectively implement this ordinance," she told council on Friday morning.

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