The Pierce County Council, at its May 4 meeting, narrowly passed an ordinance enacting an additional $4-an-hour hazard pay for workers employed by grocery businesses in unincorporated areas of the county. The additional pay would be in effect through the duration of Gov. Jay Inslee’s declared COVID-19 emergency.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier threw a monkey wrench into those plans shortly thereafter with his stated intent to veto the measure.
“I think it’s incumbent on us to protect our people in a pandemic, and their interests because what they’re paid and owed for their service in this time, they’re completely intertwined,” Council Chair Derek Young said.
He noted the local grocery market has consolidated into a duopoly dominated by Kroger and Albertsons, causing what he called a power imbalance between employers and the labor market. He said this is the point at which government should step in.
“We need to make sure that our grocery stores stay open, and we can’t afford as a community to deal with the fact that if our grocery stores were shut down, we have nowhere else to go,” said Councilmember Jani Hitchen, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
Councilmember Hans Zeiger agreed with the general consensus that grocery store workers should be treated with respect but objected to the ordinance on ideological grounds related to the proper role of government.
“Even so,” he said, “I have not heard a compelling reason why this should be a matter of public policy, as opposed to collective bargaining. And by making it a matter of public policy and using the powers of this county to enact these requirements on private sector employees, I fear that we are overstepping our bounds, and I also worry this sets a precedent for other interventions in the economy.”
He predicted passage and implementation of the ordinance would have unintended consequences, including higher labor costs passed onto customers.
In objecting to the ordinance, Dammeier, in a letter dated the same day, argued the county should “focus on reducing COVID-19 risk instead of driving up costs.”
“If grocery stores are unsafe, then make them safer, not more expensive,” he added, encouraging grocery store workers to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
The ordinance would have gone into effect on May 31 had Dammeier signed it.
The council has 30 days to act on Dammeir’s veto, which can be overridden with a two-thirds vote by said body.
Per the ordinance, a grocery business is defined as a retail store more than 10,000 square feet in size that is primarily engaged in the sale of groceries, or over 85,000 square feet in size with 10,000 square feet or more of its sales floor area dedicated to the retail sale of groceries.
Furthermore, a grocery business that employs at least one employee who works in Pierce County and operates a grocery store with 500 or more workers worldwide would be required to pay the additional $4-an-hour hazard wage during an employee shift.
Convenience stores, food marts, farmers markets and farm stands were not included in the legislation.
Councilmembers Young, Hitchen, Ryan Mello and Marty Campbell votes yes on the ordinance. Councilmembers Zeiger, Dave Morell and Amy Cruver voted no.
In other major business, the council confirmed the reappointment of existing board member Bruce Dougherty to the Aging and Disability Resources Advisory Board; affirmed the appointment of new member Robert Buck to the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Citizens' Advisory Board; confirmed the appointment of new member Tom Walrath Jr. to the Transportation Advisory Commission; and confirmed the appointment of new member Michael Stewart to the Pierce County Ethics Commission.
The council passed a proclamation recognizing Pierce County resident Dixie Gatchel, a longtime volunteer for both the Puyallup Riverwalk Trail and Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition, who died in February at age 96.
A resolution proclaiming the week of May 2-8 as “Professional Municipal Clerks Week” in Pierce County was passed by the council.