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Past Time for Respect and Relief for Grocery Store Workers

By Mayor Jenny Durkan and UFCW 21 President Faye Guenther 

Nearly one year into the pandemic, we have hope on the horizon: a new President offering necessary federal leadership and a vaccine. We also face challenges ahead in the months to come: a potentially more deadly and highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, a community reeling from closed small businesses and lost jobs, and limited supply of vaccines.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact in the lives of workers, especially communities of color. A disproportionate number of people of color are essential workers. Seattle can continue to lead the way to provide relief and respect for thousands of grocery store workers – most who are front-line essential workers who have kept our stores open and neighborhoods fed over the past year.

We strongly support Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s proposal to secure an increased pay for grocery store workers and praise the others on the council for their support. Grocery store corporations have continued to profit throughout this pandemic and paying an additional $4 an hour Hazard Pay to all their workers is the right thing to do. This relief is critical for a workforce deemed essential and who have been doing the dangerous work since the pandemic began one year ago.

Grocery stores have remained open to meet our basic needs, and with restaurants closed for indoor dining, the pandemic has led to a large increase of spending at, and bigger profits for the grocery stores. As the pandemic spread and store revenues continued to grow, workers in the stores grew weary from exhaustion and the daily stress of virus exposure. Initially, grocery store corporations provided $2 an hour hazard pay to workers, but for most this funding was cut by early summer. 

While COVID-19 cases have surged in our region and across the country, grocery store workers continue to be exposed to hundreds of shoppers every day for six to eight hours straight and thousands of different shoppers in a week. Even with precautions and restrictions for grocery stores, researchers have found that grocery workers are heightened risk for exposure, especially individuals who serve customers. These workers serve us in the deli, the meat and seafood counter, the produce and dairy aisles, restocking shelves and at the cashiers and as they bag our groceries.

It is past time that the effort and the critical support by grocery workers be recognized.  While this additional pay does not meet every need of grocery workers, an extra $4 an hour would go a long way to share the profits and show some well-deserved respect for these individuals who put themselves and their own families at risk by working in the stores to serve our community. It’s why many cities in California have already enacted a hazard pay ordinance.

As we move forward with hazard pay, signing this bill into law on February 3, we also must move forward on partnerships for equitable vaccine distribution of our essential and frontline workers. In the coming weeks – even with a limited vaccine supply – we must ensure all our frontline and essential workers who are older than 65 or older than 50 living in multigenerational households have access to the vaccine, and the City of Seattle and unions will play a critical role to helping our residents and workers most at risk.   

Faye Guenther is President of UFCW 21, the largest private sector union in Washington with over 46,000 members in grocery stores, health care, retail and other industries. 

Jenny Durkan is the Mayor of Seattle.