County Council OKs $1,250 payments to essential county staff

In a 3-2 vote, the council also approved hazard pay for grocery store workers.

EVERETT — One-time payments of $1,250 will soon head to about 1,500 Snohomish County government employees.

On Wednesday, the County Council approved two ordinances — one uses federal relief money to send bonuses to county employees deemed essential during the pandemic, and another mandates $4-per-hour pay raises for some grocery workers in unincorporated Snohomish County.

The one-time payments will go to people like sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers, human services specialists, park rangers and other county employees who have frequently interacted with the public during the pandemic.

The county estimates about 1,500 of its 3,000 employees will qualify, though the exact criteria have yet to be determined.

An ordinance defining the requirements to qualify is expected to reach the council later this week.

The money to fund the payments comes from the county’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March.

The U.S. Department of Treasury has encouraged governments to spend some of the federal dollars on premium pay for frontline workers, among other programs.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers introduced both hazard pay plans earlier this month.

Wednesday’s county council vote for the payments to county staff was unanimous.

The $4-per-hour raise will take effect 10 days after Executive Somers signs the ordinance into law. It would apply to at least eight large grocery stores in unincorporated Snohomish County.

The mandate will last until Gov. Jay Inslee lifts his state-of-emergency order or Dec. 31, whichever comes first.

And the total a grocery worker can receive in hazard pay is capped at $1,250.

Democrats Stephanie Wright, Megan Dunn and Jared Mead voted to approve the pay bump for grocery workers, while Republicans Nate Nehring and Sam Low voted against the plan.

Nehring said he would have supported the pay raise if the money had come from federal relief dollars and not the grocery stores themselves.

During public comment, some county residents and grocery store representatives questioned instituting hazard pay this late in the emergency response to the pandemic.

Others said the proposal picks which essential workers to reward by excluding staff at stores like Walmart, Target and Home Depot.

Several grocery store workers spoke about incidents in which customers intentionally spat or coughed on them during the pandemic. Others said the threat of COVID exposures at work prevented them from seeing vulnerable loved ones or caring for family members.

Councilman Low, who voted against the proposal, said he wanted more time to iron out all the details, such as confirming how many stores will be affected.

“It’s still a bad bill,” he said.

He also said forcing a wage increase could lead to higher grocery bills for customers.

Councilwoman Dunn said she spoke with the Northwest Grocery Association, which opposed the plan, and was told hazard pay throughout the pandemic hasn’t affected store prices.

“It’s misinformation to say this will increase the cost of goods,” she said.

In Seattle, two Kroger-owned QFC stores closed after the City Council there approved a $4-an-hour pay increase for grocery workers.

Kroger officials acknowledged the stores had long under-performed compared to others but said the move was accelerated by the hazard pay.

However, critics argued the closures were a tactic to intimidate other cities from mandating similar increases.

In April, Edmonds became the first city in the county to require hazard pay, when the City Council approved a $4-per-hour pay bump for grocery store workers.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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