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King County approves $4/hour hazard pay for grocery workers

The ordinance giving grocery workers in unincorporated parts of the county an extra $4 per hour in hazard pay will go into effect on March 22.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — The King County Council approved an ordinance Tuesday that will give workers at large grocery stores in unincorporated parts of the county an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay. 

The ordinance exempts independently owned stores in areas that have been historically underserved.

The legislation passed Tuesday with a 8-1 vote. Councilmember Raegan Dunn was the only opposing vote. He said there's no question that grocery workers are essential, but he didn't think it was the county's place to tell companies how much they should be paying their workers. 

The other eight councilmembers also expressed their appreciation for grocery workers and stressed that the ordinance is temporary and is meant to help workers through the pandemic. 

"Through it all our grocery workers have been out there making sure we can feed our families and they are taking that risk, and that's what hazard pay is for, hazard pay is for risk," said Council Chair Claudia Balducci. 

The vote comes after several grocery workers testified in front of the council last week saying that they're exhausted, both emotionally and physically. 

Councilmember Rob Dembowski, who drafted the legislation, said he was moved by the testimony.

"This is exceptional, unusual legislation, and it's called for by the exceptional and unusual time we're in," said Dembowski during the council meeting Tuesday. 

The ordinance is set to take effect on March 22, 2021. Councilmembers said they will revisit it after 90 days to see how things are going. 

King County is the latest jurisdiction to enact a hazard pay ordinance. Seattle and Burien already enacted similar measures and are now dealing with litigation

After Seattle enacted the $4 per hour hazard pay, QFC announced the closure of two stores it labeled as underperforming and said hazard pay was a factor.

KING 5 asked Dembowski last week if the council has considered the possibility more stores could close if the measure is approved.

"That's always a concern and so we focused this legislation on larger more profitable stores," said Dembowski during that interview. "In fact, we've exempted small stores and stores in economically depressed areas where it might lead to a food desert."

The Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association issued the below statement regarding the newly approved hazard pay ordinance: 

"It is unfortunate that days after Governor Inslee’s announcement prioritizing grocery workers for the COVID-19 vaccine the King County Council can’t allow this critical safety measure to first be implemented. NWGA and WFIA have continued to say that extra pay does not make workers safer, vaccines do. Passing an unfair, illegal, and burdensome pay increase that jeopardizes neighborhood grocery stores will do nothing to make grocery workers safer. We encourage King County to focus on prioritizing vaccine distribution to the grocery workers in their communities."

The extra hazard pay will end when the COVID-19 emergency is lifted by the county executive.

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