Grocery store workers in Kent are pushing for the City Council to introduce and pass a hazard pay ordinance due to COVID-19, similar to measures approved in Seattle and Burien.
The workers want a $5 per hour pay hike. They lobbied for an ordinance during the public comment period at the March 16 virtual Kent City Council meeting, sent emails to council members and plan to testify again at the April 6 meeting.
“I love my job,” said Bryan Gilderoy, a produce clerk at Kent East Hill Fred Meyer store, in an email to the council. “I love the people. At the beginning of this deadly pandemic, I was more than happy to put in my hardest effort to providing for the public their essential needs. At first we were celebrated as heroes, there was even appreciation TV commercials. My parent company gave us ‘Hero’ pay instead of calling it hazard pay. All the while the grocery store executives were padding their wallets, and the company’s were making billions.”
Gilderoy has worked at Fred Meyer for 10 years and is in his 20th year in the grocery business. He is spearheading the drive along with coworkers and help from the UFCW 21 union. He said the extra pay from Fred Meyer went away in the middle of the pandemic in May.
“Our ‘Hero’ pay was ended,” he said. “A couple of months later our work hours were cut so severely that a few of us could not afford the gas in our cars to get to work. All the while, corporate continued to demand more and more from us. Not realizing or just not caring that all of us have sacrificed so much blood, sweat, toil and tears already.
“We have become almost zombies trying to meet all of their demands. Most of my coworkers might be smiling and jovial on the outside, but on the inside we are exhausted, overworked, overstressed, overwhelmed and have constant anxiety about bringing this deadly disease to our loved ones.”
City councils in Seattle and Burien approved pay hikes and Auburn is considering a measure to increase pay. The Seattle City Council unanimously approved a $4 per hour pay increase at a January meeting. Burien in approved a $5 per hour pay hike in February. The King County Council in March approved a $4 per hour pandemic pay raise at grocery stores in unincorporated areas.
Kent City Council President Toni Troutner said there isn’t enough support on the council for a pay hike.
“I have listened to the comments with interest,” Troutner said in a March 27 email to the Kent Reporter. “Until a majority of the council members want to have a discussion, I will continue to do just that.”
The pay increase would be at large grocery stores that have more than 300 workers nationwide, which in Kent would include stores such as Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Trader Joe’s.
Fred Meyer has a store on the East Hill and one on the West Hill. The company employs about 500 in Kent, according to company spokesperson Tiffany Sanders.
Sanders didn’t directly address why the company took the ‘Hero’ pay away, but emailed a statement.
“What I can tell you right now is the health and safety of our associates and customers has remained our priority throughout the pandemic,” Sanders said. “We continue to invest in their well-being, taking significant steps to protect them since the start of COVID-19. Our family of companies has invested over $1.5 billion to safeguard and reward our associates and committed nearly $1 billion to secure pensions for tens of thousands of our associates in Seattle and across the country. These investments include eight different rewards and bonuses for all hourly associates since March 2020.”
Sanders said getting vaccinations for employees is the next step.
“We are actively working to ensure every associate who wants the vaccine can get one either through us or through another sanctioned provider,” Sanders said. “We are offering the vaccine to all our Washington grocery associates and providing a $100 payment for any associate that receives a full dose. We strongly encourage all associates and customers to get the vaccine to protect against COVID-19.”
Gilderoy said employees need more than vaccinations.
“That does not take away or diminish the hardships that we have been through and continue to face,” he said. “This deadly pandemic is still a deadly pandemic. Some customers throughout this pandemic have refused to wear masks, and corporate (for fear of bad PR) has refused to let us address this to protect ourselves.”
Gilderoy said some of his fellow employees have been accosted by customers, for asking them to please use safety measures.
“The high stress and high demand environment has never gone away,” Gilderoy said. “It is a struggle to get our work done and to meet all expectations from corporate.”
With no help from the company, Gilderoy said they decided to turn to the local city council.
“It is these reasons why grocery workers are fighting for the city of Kent to introduce and pass hazard pay,” Gilderoy said in his email to the council members. “After months of my union negotiating and making no progress we turn to you. We are pushing for hazard pay.”
Gilderoy and his coworkers hope a majority of the council will change its mind and take on their request.
“Hazard pay would greatly increase our morale, and our local economy would greatly benefit,” Gilderoy said. “Workers would be able to pay off the unexpected expenses like child care and other COVID-19 related expenses that have occurred.”