Food industry associations sue Seattle in response
Late last month, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved emergency legislation to require grocers to pay $4 an hour in additional hazard pay to certain grocery store workers. Concerned that grocery workers risk exposure to the COVID-19 virus, the Council approved the ordinance by an 8-0 vote, with Councilmember Debora Juarez absent. Council member Teresa Mosqueda was the prime sponsor of the ordinance.
While groups opposing the ordinance urged the Council to instead focus on making the COVID vaccine available to grocery workers, Mayor Jenny Durkan called hazard pay “a strong step forward in Seattle’s recovery.”
Regardless, two food industry groups sued the city this week alleging that the law interferes with the collective bargaining process between groceries and labor unions and “picks winners and losers” by singling out large grocery companies. The Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association brought the action. Those associations accused the council of being unwilling to cooperate with them on formulating a fairer approach to the issue.
Washington Retail sent a letter to the Council urging it to amend the ordinance to address specific concerns. The letter pointed out that the legislation calls for the extra pay to continue up to three years after officials declare an end to the city’s pandemic emergency. Hazard pay would be hard to justify after the pandemic had passed. The WR letter also noted that the ordinance requires hazard pay to begin as soon as the ordinance is signed into law. WR urged the Council to give grocers time to adjust their payrolls to include hazard pay. It went into effect on Wednesday of this week
A similar ordinance providing $4-an-hour hazard pay in Long Beach, California prompted the Kroger grocery company to announce the closure of two stores employing a total of 200. It issued the following statement:
“This misguided action by the Long Beach City Council oversteps the traditional bargaining process and applies to some, but not all, grocery workers in the city,” Kroger said. “The irreparable harm that will come to employees and local citizens as a direct result of the City of Long Beach’s attempt to pick winners and losers, is deeply unfortunate. We are truly saddened that our associates and customers will ultimately be the real victims of the city council’s actions.”
The California Grocers Association, which represents about 6,000 grocery stores across the state, has opposed Long Beach’s efforts to boost wages, filing a lawsuit against the city in federal court last month. Last week, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee denied the trade group’s request for a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the ordinance before a court could hear the case, and set a hearing for Feb. 19 on the association’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the law while the case is pending.
The Seattle ordinance applies to grocery stores larger than 10,000 square feet, as well as other retailers larger than 85,000 square feet with 30% or more of the sales floor dedicated to grocery food items. It exempts convenience stores with limited grocery lines or farmers’ markets. So far, PCC Markets in Seattle has asked Mayor Durkan to reconsider the hazard pay ordinance.
The Seattle ordinance prohibits employers from reducing an employee’s pay in response to the hazard pay requirement. It also creates a private right of action for employees to sue for alleged violations of the ordinance.