Residents share concerns on hazard pay proposal

Comments at the April 26 hearing were roughly 70/30 in favor of the riase


The Bellingham City Council agreed during their meeting on April 26, 2021 to require all grocery store workers in Bellingham get an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay for the duration of the pandemic, citing increased risk during work due to COVID-19. The ordinance passed its second vote at the Monday session, and a final vote will be taken at the next Council meeting on May 10.

Residents of Bellingham came forward during the public comment period to provide support and opposition for the ordinance, and opinions were roughly 70/30 in favor of the raise.

Michele Stelovich, former president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, spoke during the meeting to show her support for the ordinance.

“I see hazard pay as a way to reassure workers that they are being cared about, but also for the risk that they took,” Stelovich said.

When looking into the effect which hazard pay would have in relation to job risk, speakers at the meeting were quick to compare the danger of other professions such as police officers and firefighters. Seeing as these professions have also increased in risk due to COVID-19, some speakers asked why these professions don’t also deserve hazard pay?

However, Council Member Michael Lilliquist believes that the comparison is not so similar.

“This is a group of people who never signed up for a glamorous, dangerous job,” Lilliquist said.

Many individuals who came forward with concerns warned of  the precedent set by providing hazard pay to grocery workers. Council Member Pinky Vargas’ reason for opposition was concern about the role city council should take with regulating business.

“I believe these people deserve hazard pay,” she said. “I just don’t believe that the city council should be the one to tell them that.”

Council Member Gene Knutson said he was also worried about the precedent which this ordinance posed in relation to local governments involvement with private businesses.

“That’s not government’s business as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We can’t start getting into the business of ‘oh this company’s doing real well, so we better go after them.” By enforcing this ordinance, the council could be opening itself up to more industries having their workers petition the council for hazard pay, he said.

Knutson’s sentiment was shared by those who spoke in opposition to the ordinance: That it is important to show essential workers the city cares about them, but this ordinance may not be the right way of going about that task.

The Council has advanced the consideration of this ordinance faster than the usual process, citing the time-sensitive nature of the benefits it will provide. According to City Attorney Alan Marriner, however, this quickened voting has been seen before.

Marriner stated that because most members of the Council already knew where their decisions lay going into the meeting on April 26, he did not believe the Council “would gain anything by going to the next meeting.” As the ordinance passed a secondary vote 5-2, a final vote will be held at the Council meeting on May 10. It will be revisited by the council in four months in order to determine its effectiveness and rescinded entirely if the mayor ends the emergency order related to the COVID-19 pandemic.