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Pierce County executive sees vaccines, not hazard pay, as best protection for grocery workers

Cars come and go at a Safeway grocery store, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Seattle. Seattle is among the cities that have approved mandatory hazard pay for grocery workers during the pandemic. Pierce County's measure was recently vetoed by the executive.
Ted S. Warren
/
The Associated Press file
Cars come and go at a Safeway grocery store, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Seattle. Seattle is among the cities that have approved mandatory hazard pay for grocery workers during the pandemic. Pierce County's measure was recently vetoed by the executive.

Local governments throughout Western Washington are passing hazard pay ordinances requiring extra income for grocery store workers during the pandemic. The Pierce County Council passed its own measure earlier this week. But it was swiftly vetoed by County Executive Bruce Dammeier. 

The ordinance, which was approved in a 4-3 vote along party lines on Tuesday, would have applied to stores in unincorporated Pierce County. It would have given workers another $4 an hour through the end of the COVID emergency. 

Within hours, Dammeier issued a letter about his veto, noting that it was requested by the three Republican councilmembers who opposed the measure. 

“They accurately point out the unintended consequences and inequitable impacts of mandating hazard pay for certain grocery employees,” Dammeier wrote. 

That opposition makes it unlikely that the Pierce County Council would get the two-thirds vote it would need to overturn Dammeier’s veto.

In an interview with KNKX Public Radio, Dammeier said he worried the hazard pay requirement would have ripple effects and could disproportionately affect grocery stores in underserved communities.

“The Safeway in the Hilltop in Tacoma is really important to this community,” he said. “The last thing in the world we want to do is have that store close and exacerbate food deserts for communities that need healthy options.”

Tacoma has not passed a hazard pay ordinance. But after Seattle did earlier this year, Kroger announced that it would close two QFC stores

Dammeier added that the government shouldn't interfere with negotiations between employers and unions. 

“So for government to jump into the middle of that, or into a private relationship between an employee and their employer in the private sector, that’s very concerning,” he said.

Councilmembers who voted in favor of the ordinance said it was necessary to protect people who assume a lot of risk showing up to work during the pandemic.

“Today grocery workers in Pierce County got the respect they deserve,” Councilmember Ryan Mello said following the vote, who co-sponsored the legislation. “For more than a year these workers faced – and continue to face – unprecedented danger by showing up to work every day. Requiring their employers fairly compensate them for their sacrifices is the least we can do.”

The other co-sponsor, Councilmember Jani Hitchen, echoed his remarks. 

“These workers have been on the frontlines for the last year, and it has not been easy,” Hitchen said. “While the proposed additional pay won’t make their jobs easier, it provides much-needed compensation for the hazards of working while facing significant exposure to COVID-19.”

Dammeier stressed in his interview with KNKX that the best way to keep workers safe is for every adult in the county to get vaccinated.

“I want both the grocery store worker to be vaccinated and I want all of their customers to be vaccinated,” he said.