The Edmonds City Council Tuesday night approved Mayor Mike Nelson’s proposal to require Edmonds grocery stores to provide an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay for their employees. The measure — which applies to Edmonds grocers who employee 500 or more workers statewide — was originally proposed as an emergency ordinance, meaning it would have been effective within days if approved by a supermajority of five or more councilmembers. In the end, the vote was 4-1, with two abstentions, so the measure will go into effect in 30 days.
During public comments, the council also received an earful of negative comments from downtown merchants regarding the city administration’s plans to reinstitute its Walkable Main Street program — which last year closed Main Street between 3rd and 6th Avenues to vehicle traffic on weekends from June 20-Oct. 11.
A representative of the grocery industry as well as several grocery workers addressed the hazard pay issue as part of the public comment period. Holly Chisa of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents grocery chains with a presence in Edmonds such as QFC and Safeway, said that the association is concerned that the measure “pits us against other retailers in the city” not covered by the ordinance. For example, Chisa noted that under the measure, pharmacy technicians employed by grocery stores would receive hazard pay but pharmacy technicians employed by Rite Aid would not.
Michaela Strain, who works as a QFC meat wrapper, said that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and many of her co-workers “have been showing up to work every day to ensure that the community of Edmonds has a reliable source of food,” even as restaurants and schools were shut down. While Kroger, which owns QFC, and other large grocery chains initially rewarded workers with a $2-an-hour hazard pay increase early in the pandemic, “that pay bump was taken away last May even though the hazardous conditions have remained and at times gotten worse,” Strain said.
Union leaders have been trying to get that hazard pay reinstated ever since, Strain continued, adding that the companies are large national corporations “making billions in profits and refusing to share that profit with essential frontline workers that show up every day to help keep the community fed.”
Debbie Gath with Teamsters Union Local 38, which represents over 3,000 Snohomish County grocery workers, said that while they are encouraged more workers are getting vaccinated, “in this pandemic world, things are changing daily. “
That point was also reiterated by City Attorney Jeff Taraday in discussing with the council the reasons why the mayor is proposing the measure now — a year after the pandemic started. “There’s a lot of uncertainty how effective the vaccines are going to be against some of the (virus) variants that are appearing,” said Taraday, adding it’s also concerning that the Snohomish Health District said Tuesday that the county’s COVID infection rate is increasing. “I think there’s still some signifcant risk there that these workers are facing,” Taraday said.
Three councilmembers — Diane Buckshnis, Kristiana Johnson and Vivian Olson — raised a range of questions about the hazard pay measure, including why other frontline workers — especially those in the health care field — weren’t prioritized or at least included as part of the hazard pay ordinance. Taraday responded that the administration could consider addressing hazard pay for other groups if the councilmembers requested it.
Olson said that while she is “so appreciating all of our frontline workers,” it appeared to her that a main reason for the hazard pay was because of “record profits” made by grocery stores. She stated that consumers should “shop with their wallets” and support local grocers that are already offering $4 an hour in hazard pay — currently the PCC in Edmonds plus Trader Joe’s in nearby Shoreline and Lynnwood. “It’s not the government’s role to determine the salaries that businesses pay their employees,” Olson said. “This is about profit and having a problem with the profits that are being made by this company, and we have appropriate government regulation against pandemic profiteering.”
Councilmembers Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Susan Paine, Laura Johnson and Luke Distelhorst all spoke in support of the mayor’s proposal.
“There are enough activities going on in grocery stores that put the workers at risk, day in, day out,” Paine said. That includes asking customers to wear masks and participating in regular cleaning protocols, “whether you’re at the register, managing carts or doing cleanup, or just tidying up all the places where people touch.”
“These people have been working over and over, doing more work than they had ever planned in scary, scary times,” she added. “This gives them the opportunity to be made whole.”
When it came time to vote, Councilmembers Fraley-Monillas, Paine, Laura Johnson and Distelhorst were in support of the hazard pay, Vivian Olson opposed it, and Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson abstained.
As for Walkable Main Street, several downtown retail store owners used the public comment period to declare their opposition to the program, even though the mayor has already indicated it will proceed.
Robert Boehlke, who owns HouseWares, said his Main Street business suffered on Saturdays last year, adding that customers had trouble finding parking. The demographic attracted to Walkable Main Street is younger and “more interested in a party atmosphere” than shopping, he said.
Kate Guthrie, who owns Glazed and Amazed pottery studio at 5th and Main near the fountain, said her business depends on having parking nearby for the families and elderly shoppers — and Walkable Main Street has taken that parking away. “I lose customers because of it,” Guthrie said, adding it deters people from coming to her store on weekends. In addition, Gutherie pointed to concerns from other businesses located outside “the chosen zone” — how they describe the Walkable Main Street area — who have also seen sales decrease.
“For the record, not everyone loves the Walkable Main Street program,” said Jenny Murphy, owner of women’s clothing boutique Sound Styles, also located near the fountain at 5th and Main. “Many of us — Edmonds business owners and residents alike — feel it’s a wave that can’t be stopped and are deeply frustrated by the fact that our voices are unheard when our livelihoods are at stake.” She has heard complaints that the outdoor “streateries” — permitted so that restaurants could offer outdoor dining during the pandemic — have greatly altered the town’s aesthetics, blocked sidewalks and removed parking.
“The restaurants have had their chance to expand into much-needed parking spaces, which has kept them afloat, but at whose expense?” Murphy asked. “Please keep our streets open and do not allow our town to become one big Taste of Edmonds,” Murphy said. “And remember, when people in a community don’t feel heard, those communities fall apart. Let’s work to stay together, not just be a restaurant district. We need all of us.”
Cline Jewelers owner Andy Cline, located on 5th Avenue near Main Street, told the council that “when the streets are closed, retail does not thrive. Restaurants and bars do.” Big Edmonds events like the car show or Taste Edmonds, where people are walking around town, “are absolutely the worst days for retail,” Cline said. He also criticized the city’s Walkable Main Street survey conducted in March as “very skewed,” noting it didn’t ask respondents whether they supported Walkable Main Street in the first place. Instead the focus was on ways to expand or enhance the program.
(You can see the survey results in this link to the council agenda.)
While the city stated that the survey garnered responses from 1,332 people and there were 629 individual comments, of which 88% expressed support for Walkable Main Street, “how many people — like me — didn’t fill out the survey? We didn’t want to answer questions that we didn’t agree with,” Cline said.
“I don’t think there’s a need for Walkable Main,” he added. “It’s a great fun atmophere but I hear people are just staying away on the weekends now and some of our top customers said they won’t even come down on the weekends.”
Pedro Germano, who manages Demitris Woodstone Taverna — a restaurant located near the Edmonds ferry terminal and outside the Walkable Main Street area, said his business was down over 30% on weekends during the Walkable Main Street program. “If you direct everybody to one single spot, it’s obvious what’s going to happen with the rest of the businesses,” Germano said. In addition, with a possible “fourth wave” of COVID looming, Walkable Main Street only serves to encourage people to gather with no one controlling how many are gathering. “I just don’t think it’s healthy,” he said.
Between federal and state loans and grants, plus options for streateries, restaurants have had “plenty of help,” Germano said. “So I don’t know what else the city wants to do to help that specifically chosen zone and not help the whole city of Edmonds.”
In his Walkable Main Street presentation to council, Economic Development Director Patrick Doherty also noted that in addition to the public survey, representatives of 31 merchants participated in a facilitated roundtable discussion on Walkable Main Street. Among the ideas discussed were adding street closures on Friday nights, providing A frame or other temporary signage promoting businesses outside the walkable area, addressing parking concerns, and ensuring that sidewalks maintain ADA access.
In making his case for maintaining the Walkable Main Street program, Doherty said that business owners do support the street closure, but didn’t show up to comment to the council Tuesday night. He also pointed to comments on the city’s Facebook page that indicate many people are concerned about coming downtown during the pandemic due to the city’s narrow streets and the inability to maintain social distancing.
While the city has decided to move ahead with the program and has surveyed the public, the administration is still interested in hearing comments and concerns from the council, Doherty said.
There were a range of thoughts from councilmembers: Vivian Olson suggested that the program not been implemented on days when there was a likely chance of rain in fhe forecast (Doherty noted the difficulty of using unpredictable weather forecasts to make closure decisions); Susan Paine wondered if the event could be limited to two weekends a month instead of four (Doherty said that could be problematic because people may not remember which weekends are open or closed).
Councilmember Laura Johnson then suggested the program could perhaps run from 6 p.m. Saturday through all day Sunday, thus giving retailers a full weekend Saturday without closure and parking worries. That idea was also supported by Councilmember Kristiana Johnson.
Walkable Main Street ideas will continue to be discussed at future council meetings.
— By Teresa Wippel