Bellingham City Council mandates pay increase as COVID-19 rates rise
BY ARIA NGUYEN
Bellingham grocery workers will receive a $4 per hour pay increase as compensation, due to their constant exposure to COVID-19 while working, as cases continue to rise and vaccine demand slows. The City Council is requiring grocery stores over 10,000 square feet with more than 40 employees to implement this hazard pay starting May 25, 2021.
During the public hearing on April 26, five council members and two-thirds of the residents who spoke during the public comment period supported the pay increase. Those in support stated that grocery workers’ wages do not reflect the risks they are taking to keep Whatcom County residents and families fed. Council Members Gene Knutson and Pinky Vargas, who voted against the ordinance at its adoption on May 10, said it was unfair to provide a pay increase to one group of essential workers while others get nothing.
Unfair to other workers?
Knutson said he has been against the pay increase for grocery workers since the beginning, and that the government should not get involved in affairs surrounding relationships between employees and employers. In the 28 years that he has been on the Council, they have never done anything like this for a specific group of people, according to Knutson.
“It just never did feel right to single out one group of frontline workers,” Knutson said.
A local nurse echoed these concerns. Meghan, who asked for her last name to be withheld over a fear of losing her job, said passing a pay increase for one group of essential workers was unfair.
“I am definitely in agreement with [grocery workers] getting the extra pay, as they have been putting themselves at risk,” Meghan said. “However, there are other people that should have this hazard pay available to them.”
Meghan noted that clinic staff and other frontline workers — such as those working at gas stations and small convenience stores — deserve compensation and recognition for risking their lives during the pandemic as well.
“We all should get it or nobody should get it,” Meghan said.
Bellingham is not the only city that has approved pay increases solely for grocery store workers. Seattle, Edmonds and King County also require stores to supply employees with an extra $4 per hour as hazard pay so long as Washington’s state of emergency is still in effect per Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders.
Vaccine demand declines
As the state of emergency continues, hazard pay may be necessary for the foreseeable future. In an update to the city council on COVID-19 response, Whatcom County’s Health Department Director, Erika Lautenbach, said demand for vaccines has slowed down.
The community vaccination clinic the weekend of May 8 and 9 had 500 slots open for appointments but only 62 doses were given, Lautenbach said. As of May 8, 2021, only 35.71% of Whatcom County residents were fully vaccinated and 46.99% of residents had only received one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccination, according to a report done by the Whatcom County Department of Health.
With no indication of cases slowing down and community members not getting fully vaccinated, Councilwoman Lisa Anderson said she believes this reinforces the need for hazard pay along with the need for city councils and local governments to “step up.”
Local governments need to take initiative when the state has not intervened as providing leadership during a global health crisis is important, Anderson said.
“A lot of [grocery workers’] health and safety are dependent on the community being vaccinated and following the guidelines for protection,” Anderson said. “The hazard pay is to provide recognition and compensation for the sacrifices grocery store employees made throughout the pandemic.”
Anderson said she hopes the council’s action signals to corporations to acknowledge the safety of their employees.
Earlier action preferred
The president of the Northwest Grocery Association, Amanda Dalton, addressed the ordinance via an emailed statement on behalf of the region’s grocers. Dalton noted that one year into a pandemic is not the time to enact hazard pay. She also expressed her disappointment in the Council for not acknowledging that “grocery stores continue to be one of the employers with the lowest transmission rates in the state.”
“The grocery stores in Bellingham are part of the community,” Dalton said. “These are not lowwage or zerobenefit jobs. [Employers] pay wages and benefits above minimum wage and support additional services that are critical to the success of all of Bellingham’s neighbors.”
Whole Foods employee Laurel Happe said that grocery workers still risk contracting COVID-19, but that implementing this pay at the beginning of the pandemic when the risk of exposure was higher would have been better.
“The topic of discussion is coming so late into the pandemic,” Happe said. “Although I am very grateful to be receiving this pay it seems like they are doing it right now just to say ‘well at least we did something before it’s over.’”
The Bellingham City Council will review in four months the pay increase that will take effect on May 25 at 12:01 a.m.