Councilmember Sawant’s Statement While Voting ‘NO’ on Ending the $4/hour Grocery Worker Pandemic Hazard Pay

“As the BA.5 Covid variant surges, and as inflation stretches workers’ paychecks to the breaking point, Mayor Harrell, big business, and the City Council Democrats have shamefully cut grocery workers’ wages by $4/hour. Grocery workers and all frontline workers have made incredible sacrifices during the pandemic, and they deserve a raise, not a pay cut!”

SEATTLE – Councilmember Kshama Sawant (District 3, Central Seattle), Chair of the Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee, issued the following statement, which can be viewed online, on the Seattle City Council’s vote today to end the $4/hour pandemic hazard pay for grocery workers:

“I will be voting NO, yet again, on this bill to end hazard pay for grocery workers.

“As the BA.5 Covid variant surges, and as inflation stretches workers’ paychecks to the breaking point, Mayor Harrell, big business, and the City Council Democrats have shamefully cut grocery workers’ wages by $4/hour. Grocery workers and all frontline workers have made incredible sacrifices during the pandemic, and they deserve a raise, not a pay cut!”

“Today is the seventh time the Democrats have put legislation to end hazard pay on the Council’s agenda since July 27 of last year. I cannot think of any other issue that has been tried so many times in one year. Compare this to how, in the last forty years, the Washington State Democrats have not once put ending the statewide ban on rent control up for a vote. They have controlled the Governor’s mansion for 30 out of the last 30 years, the Senate for 20 years, the House for 23 years, and have controlled all three for 15 of those 30 years. This is truly revealing of the real priorities of the Democratic Party.

“To date, my socialist Council office is the only one that has consistently opposed ending hazard pay. Pressure from strong public support for hazard pay forced the Democrats to delay the vote until December 13 last year, at which point all eight Democrats voted ‘Yes’ to end hazard pay. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda was the sponsor of that December bill to end hazard pay. I was sick that day, and was unable to attend, but I had made my opposition to ending hazard pay during the pandemic perfectly clear. With the Omicron virus flaring, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan was forced to veto that cruel measure.

“Councilmembers have heard the facts directly from grocery workers during public comment this week, last week, and throughout last year.

“Trent, a West Seattle worker and member of grocery workers union UFCW Local 3000, told the City Council last week, 

“… we are basically hanging by a thread. And if that thread called hazard pay is cut, it’s going to be very devastating for the grocery workers in this city.”

“In contrast, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen took home a cool $18 million last year. Albertsons President Sharon McCollam was paid $11.7 million. The companies they head up are major chains — the many brands owned by Kroger include QFC and Fred Meyer, while Albertsons owns Safeway, among other brands. They’re hiking food prices for working people while reaping billions in profits. 

“Even the City Council’s own Central Staff have noted that the bill to end hazard pay will disproportionately impact Black and Brown working people:

“Ending hazard pay requirements for grocery store employees could have a disproportionate impact on grocery workers who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The risks of working during the pandemic are especially significant for BIPOC workers because they are overrepresented among the retail frontline workforce, more likely to earn lower incomes, and disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Despite positive trends in vaccinations and key indicators of COVID-19 activity in King County, there are disproportionately higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths among most communities of color, with the highest rates in all three categories for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander residents and the second highest rates for hospitalizations and deaths for American Indian/Alaska Native residents.”

“And in its WHEREAS clauses, this bill itself recognizes, 

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that COVID transmission in King County is at a “high” level.”

“So what possible justification could there be for ending hazard pay for grocery workers, unless elected officials want to tell the truth and say they are simply increasing the profits of big business at the expense of workers?

When she brought forward the ending hazard pay bill for a vote in December, Councilmember Mosqueda argued that Seattle should end our hazard pay because other cities had already ended theirs. We simply cannot accept this race-to-the-bottom argument.

“Councilmembers will no doubt point to the new contract between UFCW Local 3000 and the major grocery bosses. 

“I have heard several myths to that effect. I have heard it falsely claimed that Seattle’s hazard pay must be repealed before UFCW members can get their negotiated pay raises. 

“A plain reading of the union contract shows this is utterly untrue. 

“The new contract states that the 2022 pay increases are (quote) “effective on the first day of the contract or the first Sunday after Hazard pay ends, whichever is later, but no later than Aug. 28, 2022.” (end quote) In other words, union workers will get their deserved pay increases on Aug. 28 (which is before this bill would even take effect), whether or not Seattle’s hazard pay remains.

“The Democratic establishment will also no doubt argue that UFCW members will get substantial raises in their contract, and that ending hazard pay will not result in lost wages or pose a hardship.

“Their math doesn’t add up. Union-represented workers will receive a raise this year of 15¢/hour for new hires, and $2/hour for most workers with over 3.5 years experience. Workers with no union will not even get those raises. No matter how you slice it, losing $4/hour will be a major pay cut for most union members, not to mention those without a union.

“Not to mention that the $4/hour is hazard pay to help compensate for the additional risks grocery workers face during the pandemic. The raises in the contract barely keep up with inflation, and they are certainly no replacement for hazard pay.

“And let’s be clear: Ending hazard pay won’t lower food prices—these corporate chains have not, and will not, return the “savings” to consumers. Kroger and other supermarket corporations are profiting handsomely from inflation, which, according to a recent Bloomberg article, “remains on a tear, especially when it comes to food costs, which rose 10.4% in June from a year ago, the largest increase since 1981.”

“I urge Councilmembers to vote NO on ending hazard pay. If Democrats end hazard pay early, they will be doing more than terminating a crucial public policy. They will be saying, in the midst of this ongoing health emergency, that the lives and well-being of frontline grocery workers don’t matter, whereas profits for the wealthy reign supreme.

“As worker Brett James said today in public comment,

“Why are City Council members fighting to take away hazard pay when instead you should all be fighting to increase the minimum wage and make this hazard pay a moot point?”

“All of this shows that working people cannot rely on the Democratic Party. The only way forward for Seattle’s working people is to build mass movements independent of the Democratic Party and independent of the labor and NGO leaders who fail to represent workers because of their ties to the Democrats. That is the only way in which workers have ever won anything — including the Amazon Tax which we won in 2020, and the unprecedented renters’ rights we have won since 2016.”