BI council passes hazard pay for grocery workers

The Bainbridge Island City Council passed an emergency ordinance Tuesday related to hazard pay for grocery workers.

The law is effective immediately but only applies to employers with 500 or more employees worldwide. On Bainbridge, there are two grocery stores — Town & Country Market and Safeway, that the ordinance will apply to. Councilmember Christy Carr said it would essentially only apply to workers at Safeway, which 60 percent of their staff lives off the island.

While Carr voted in favor of the ordinance, she did so only to not hold up the process because she knew her fellow councilmembers overwhelmingly supported it. She didn’t think the law applied to enough workers on the island and wanted to broaden the scope to other essential workers.

“I think this is a real complex policy issue that we went a little too fast on,” Carr said. “Something like this makes sense in Seattle where there are dozens of grocery stores, thousands of grocery store workers, a stable of city attorneys and an Office of Labor Standards.

“This legislation is too cumbersome on our very limited staff and resources to benefit fewer than fifty islanders,” she added. “What about bus drivers, small business retail workers on Winslow Way, baristas, employees at Rite Aid and Walgreens, or restaurant workers? There are hundreds of people working at risk every day to serve us and support their families.”

Carr also made the point that grocery workers can get vaccinated because they are supported by a union, whereas those protections aren’t available for hundreds of other island workers on the frontlines.

In late February, the council created an ad hoc committee consisting of councilmembers Joe Deets and Brenda Fantroy-Johnson to create an ordinance related to hazard pay for grocery workers. City Attorney Joe Levan prepared the ordinance.

“What we did was look at what other local jurisdictions have done so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Levan said. “The concern was, in particular, that grocery workers are frontline workers and as part of this pandemic they have taken on a special burden, a special role to provide to our community. This would allow them some additional pay going forward for those it applies to.”

Deets, who was part of the ad hoc committee, said he “actually agonized” over the decision but ultimately voted in favor of it. “The small grocery stores simply can’t afford any increase in wages,” he said. “It is very limiting, but there’s a practical reason for that … I decided that providing some benefits to some workers, I would be in support of.”

The implemented hazard pay will have a tiered approach. For employers between 500 and 2,000 employees worldwide, the amount of hazard pay per hour would be an increase of $2, while those who have 2,000 or more employees worldwide would require $4 per hour of hazard pay.

“This ordinance is going to help so many people,” Fantroy-Johnson said. “It seems like only yesterday when we were all on lockdown. I can remember being afraid to go to the grocery store. I can imagine what the people who worked there must have felt. It was so new, and it was so scary. Nobody knew what was going on.

“As time went on, those same workers had to put up with everyone’s angst of not being able to find the things on the shelves,” she went on to say. “People would come in and spout stuff at them about wearing masks. This is the least the city could do to help these people.”

The emergency law will be in effect until it is terminated or repealed by the council.