Votes this week on grocery worker hazard pay and delivery fee restrictions designed to protect workers and local businesses during the pandemic might signal a shift away from COVID-era policies in Seattle.
Two policies tied to the city’s civil emergency — which has allowed the city to make emergency COVID-related policy, operational and funding decisions since March 2020 — will go before the Seattle City Council on Tuesday.
The first is a council-led policy push to codify a COVID-19 emergency cap on delivery fees charged to local businesses, allowing the policy to continue after the emergency order is eventually lifted.
Originally passed in April 2020, the policy prohibits third-party delivery companies from charging local businesses more than a 15% fee per order on delivery, mirroring fee caps in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New York.
“The market has grown accustomed to the 15% fee, so there’s a concern that the restaurants operating as small businesses are facing a financial cliff if third-party delivery companies could raise it to whatever they wanted suddenly,” Councilmember Alex Pedersen said last week. “We want to make sure these businesses don’t get hit with 30% fees or something after we leave the state of emergency, to protect them and the consumers as well.”
A bill to make the fee cap permanent, sponsored by Pedersen and Councilmember Dan Strauss, passed out of the council’s Economic Development, Technology and City Light Committee and will be considered Tuesday by the full council.
While Pedersen said Wednesday he is unaware of what date Mayor Bruce Harrell intends to lift the emergency order, or whether a date has been set, he said he wanted to begin the process of establishing a permanent policy, in case the order comes to an end in August.
“We don’t know when the mayor will end the emergency, so the concern is that typically legislation has a 30-day delay before it’s implemented,” Pedersen said. “And so if this gets discussed by the full City Council on August 2 and the mayor signs it a few days later, we’re talking past Labor Day before it’s effective.”
As the council considers allowing that COVID protection to continue after the state of emergency, it will also vote on a request from the mayor’s office to end a $4-per-hour hazard-pay requirement for grocery workers during the pandemic, which has been in place since January 2021.
A spokesperson for Harrell said the request reflects the current phase of the pandemic.
“Grocery workers were a specific class of workers to receive hazard pay at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the necessity of access to grocery stores at a time when many other food-based businesses and nonprofit providers were closed,” Communications Director Jamie Housen said Friday, noting that most of the city is vaccinated and most businesses have reopened.
“While the city is monitoring new variants with Public Health – Seattle & King County data, case trends have showed little sign of spiking at levels as severe as last December. These reasons make it the appropriate time to repeal this provision,” he added.
Dozens of members of the public called in to last week’s City Council meeting, when the bill was expected to be voted on but was deferred to this week, criticizing the idea of ending hazard pay while the pandemic is ongoing.
“The burden of these health crises falls disproportionately on working people and the very least council Democrats can do to support working people is to leave hazard pay in place,” said Preston Sahabu, who spoke to the council last week in favor of hazard pay and abortion protections.
According to the mayor’s office, the hazard-pay requirement for certain workers can’t become a permanent fix for wages.
“Hazard pay was never intended to be long term or a substitute for living wages and workplace protections,” Housen said last week. “While growing inflation is a justifiable reason for workers to want continued $4/hour in additional compensation, the nexus in granting hazard pay was always tied to COVID-19, not consumer prices.”
Throughout July, Washington saw a seven-day COVID case rate of around 215-240 infections per 100,000 people, a fraction of the over 1,200 infections the week of the council’s last vote to maintain hazard pay, but well over the 140 infections per 100,000 reported when council tried to end the requirement in December.
While both agenda items signal the city preparing for the end of COVID, Harrell’s office said last week there’s no date set for lifting the civil emergency.
“There is no imminent lift coming for the order. That said, we’ve communicated to council that they should think ahead and consider codifying any interim COVID regulations they want to see continue post-state of emergency,” Housen said Friday.