City Council endorses hazard pay for grocery workers

For the people or for the business? Council hears comments on proposed wage hike ordinance.


The Bellingham City Council supported a proposed ordinance at its April 26 meeting to require grocery stores over a certain size to provide $4 per hour extra as hazard pay to their employees who are being exposed to COVID-19. 

The pay increase drew many Bellingham residents to speak during the public comment period that lasted around an hour. Though a majority of community members supported the ordinance, about one-third of those who spoke during the public comment period brought up rising concerns. Some residents who spoke against the ordinance said they felt only providing a pay increase to one group of frontline workers was unfair.

A small business owner in Whatcom County, Douglas Robertson, was one who spoke in opposition to the pay increase for grocery store workers during the public comment period. During the meeting, Robertson asked the Council to “not endorse the ordinance in its current form,” as other frontline workers should receive hazard pay as well.

“First you have to be a wage leader in your own house,” Robertson said. “That means give this type of hazard pay to your own works, police, fire and EMTs.”

Robertson also brought up concern for “food deserts,” or areas where residents typically receive a low income and have limited access to transportation restricting their access to grocery stores. The pay increase could cause underperforming stores to close, limiting the access to grocery stores for Whatcom County residents even further, Robertson said.

Councilwoman Lisa Anderson, who voted to pass the ordinance, said during the meeting that she has been monitoring the COVID-19 rates and that Bellingham is “not out of the woods yet,” and so she supports the hazard pay as grocery workers will still be exposed to the virus.

With Gov. Jay Inslee’s addition to his “Washington Health — Roadmap to Recovery” plan, counties across Washington state were moved into Phase 3, with each county being evaluated by the Department of Health every three weeks to see where their metrics stand. Since this change, several counties including Cowlitz, Pierce and Whitman moved back into Phase 2 of operation. Anderson said with certain counties moving back on their phases that people should still be aware of the increasing trend of COVID-19 cases.

“I am greatly concerned with the trend going up and the increase of hospitalizations,” Anderson said. “We are seeing that people are not getting the second dose of the vaccine, and because of this we might not get to herd immunity.”

            On April 26, 53 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Whatcom County, more cases than the county has seen in over two months, according to the Washington State Department of Health dashboard.

In the United States, about 8% of Americans have missed their second doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccination as of early April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On a local level, about 8% to 9% of residents in Whatcom County are skipping their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccination, according to the Whatcom County Health Department. With increasing cases, Anderson said it is important to look at the long-term effects of the virus and to do what is best for families and the community.

Councilmembers Anderson and Michael Lilliquist addressed the increasing cases of COVID-19 on Monday. Councilman Gene Knutson said he was not concerned, as Whatcom County is over a year into the pandemic and grocery stores already attempted to supply their workers with hazard pay.

“I am not concerned as we are no way near where we were months ago. I think [Anderson and Lilliquist] jumped the gun when referencing the cases,” Knutson said. “If grocery store workers are really concerned about safety, they should get the vaccine.”

Though there were divisions among the council regarding the ordinance, grocery stocker Todd Saari said that the hazard pay would change his life significantly. Saari started working at Safeway when the mask mandate was put into place. With the extra $4 per hour on his paycheck, Saari said he would be able to save the money to be able to move into a house of his own.

According to Saari, he had high hopes for the ordinance to pass but once he realized other frontline workers would not receive hazard pay, concerns arose.

“I don’t think it’s right to exclusively pay grocery store workers more and not other frontline workers,” Saari said. “If I do receive it, I will feel some sort of guilt.”

When speaking with Anderson regarding other essential workers, she said fast-food workers, restaurant workers and baristas’ business practices enabled them to partially limit their risk, as they were able to close their lobbies to limit exposure to just the drive-through windows. Anderson also said that medical professionals pay and training reflect the risks they are taking.

“When they go into that profession, they understand that risk. They are given equipment for the risk, their pay reflects that risk and so does their education and training,” Anderson said. “This ordinance is not just about increasing grocery workers’ pay, which would add compensation; it is a signal saying as a city, as city leadership, as a community, that you matter.”

The Bellingham City Council will meet on May 10 to take its final vote on the ordinance.