Bellingham City Council members defend extra compensation for some frontline workers

Council members are divided over proposal to give hazard pay to grocery workers


“If you were a captain and your ship was sinking and you had 100 people on board but only have lifeboats for 75, do you just tell everyone to get in the water because you can’t save everybody?” Council Member Daniel Hammill said shortly before a majority of Bellingham City Council members voted to order hazard pay for some frontline workers.

Council members approved $4/hour hazard pay for grocery employees by a 5-2 vote at the April 26 meeting. Although council members Gene Knutson and Pinky Vargas were in opposition, Hammill stood by the fact that the ordinance could still help some people.

Grocery employees have faced the danger of workplace exposure to COVID-19 and have received little to no compensation thus far into the pandemic. This ordinance affects facilities with at least 40 employees. It will require employers to adjust their budget accordingly and would not be provided to grocery administrative staff or delivery drivers.

The battle between where to draw the line for recognizing workers at risk was a debate among council members. If hazard pay is offered to grocery workers, who is to say restaurant workers are not equally deserving? Several council members also had concerns about how long the implementation will last.

“This lasts only as long as the mayor’s proclamation for state of emergency during the pandemic or until we as council decide it’s over,” Council Member Michael Lilliquist said. “But this pandemic is a long way from being over.” Other council members agreed that the time limit is unknown, however, they found comfort in the potential upcoming review.

A significant potential downfall for Bellingham consumers is the possibility of price increase in groceries. Despite this possibility, a remarkable number of Bellingham residents voiced their support on the ordinance during public comment period. More than 20 letters in support of the ordinance were also received by council members.

Jackson Greene, a college-aged Fred Meyer employee, provided insight on the possibility of raised grocery prices.

“Grocery workers are some of the lowest paid employees in the job market. Most of us make minimum wage or slightly above,” Greene said. “We are also some of the people who should be most worried about the prices. Hazard pay is overdue for grocery workers; my employers can absorb the cost of hazard pay and I am sure other chains will be just fine absorbing it as well.”

The final vote to adopt the ordinance takes place May 10, and the measure would take effect two weeks later if signed by Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who had little to say on the matter during the meeting.