Target reportedly offered hazard pay to its employees. (RoundTable photo)

Addressing the Evanston City Council during the citizen comment portion of the May 24 City Council meeting, Tanya Triche Dawood, Vice President and General Counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said approval of the ordinance would be “a slap in the face” to local stores that have taken a leading role supporting employees during the pandemic.               

“Slap in the Face

Ms. Dawood told Council members, “There’s an undercurrent here in this conversation that grocery stores are just making a ton of money and at the expense of employees, and that is actually not the case.

“The grocery industry has been targeted here, and it’s frankly concerning, especially because we are moving out of the pandemic,” she said. “And the grocery industry has been one that has been a steady hand.”

She said the industry took a lead role even before the government, installing safety features such as plexiglass and creating one-way aisles to protect employees.

“In addition, we’ve extended sick pay before the Feds were even reimbursing for some of that,” she told Council members. She also pointed to the bonuses and higher temporary wages employers have given out to workers during the pandemic.

“We’ve gone above and beyond to ensure that our employees are safe and know that they’re being taken care of,” she maintained, “and this proposal is a bit of a slap in the face to the grocery industry that is supporting Evanston communities.”

Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, proposed at the May 10 City Council meeting that Council members create an ordinance mandating hazard pay for certain employees of the City’s larger retail stores working during the pandemic.

“Employees are putting their lives on the line for us to ensure that we can have food and access to resources,” he said.                                           

Ordinance Details                        

The proposed ordinance would require retailers with 500 or more employees nationwide or franchises located in the City to pay essential workers $6 per hour on top of their base wage for work performed during Phases 1 through 3 of Illinois’ Coronavirus Response and an additional $3.50 per hour over the base wage for work performed during Phase 4.

The requirement would be retroactive, effective back 15 weeks from the date of passage of the ordinance.                                                                    

Council Discussion: Local Businesses Are Necessary

In discussion at the May 24 meeting, Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said, referring to a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program study suggesting that grocery stores in particular have seen rapid profits during the pandemic, “It suggests to me this [hazard pay] may not be unduly burdensome, which is why I would love to hear from the business community, [beyond] that they don’t want to do this or that, [or] what they’ve already done,” he said.

He said he would prefer to hear more about their financial outcomes as a result of the pandemic.

“And also when I overlay on top of this the fact that there are grocers around the country who have decided to provide hazard pay to their employees without being required to do so, it also strikes me that this is a proposal worth considering.”

Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, pointed to what officials have heard from local companies, including Target, with an anchor store downtown, and Valli Produce, which transformed a once “dead shopping center” at Dempster and Dodge to one that’s “really ready to thrive.”

Target did give its employees hazard pay, she said, according to information from Downtown Evanston Executive Director Annie Coakley, and has continued to pay bonuses on top of $19 an hour salaries.

“You know these may be big box stores in an abstract way, but they are critical members of our business community,” she said, “and the concern that I have is that we are applying this [hazard pay] specifically just to Evanston businesses, when we are a small player in the big economic picture of Cook County and the State of Illinois.”

“I would question whether Council Member Reid has reached out to our State legislators about getting something like this passed throughout Illinois,” she said, “because if we impose this extra cost on Evanston businesses, then we put them at a disadvantage.”

She argued that, given the City’s economic picture, “I think we just can’t keep bashing them [the large retailers]. We need to have them be part of the conversation, because we need to have them continue to be here in Evanston. We can’t survive simply on small mom-and-pop retail businesses; we need the large anchors to draw people in.”

Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, reminded Council members, “We’re talking about specific pay during the pandemic.”

About some of the points raised earlier by Ms. Dawood, the retail industry representative, she said, “I appreciate what she said, but those things are also protections [for the business owner] and get you to get people into your store, right?”

Officials can give businesses credit for those moves but it should not weigh in on whether the Council approves hazard pay “if that’s what this body decides,” she said.

Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, drew a comparison between the current debate and the Council’s discussion held after the last Council was seated over the minimum wage.

“The difference between what I see now and four years ago is that we opted in, because we knew that there were other municipalities that were doing the same thing.”

At the May 24 meeting, Council members voted to introduce the proposal. They are expected to hold further discussion and possibly take a final vote on the issue at their June 14 meeting.

In the meantime, Mr. Reid said, he is looking forward to partnering with Ald. Braithwaite as well as anyone else who has raised concerns about the issue.

“I want to make sure that this is a collective effort in that the City Manager and City staff are hearing a number of questions the City staff can address,” he said.

He expressed thanks to Ald. Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, for putting him in touch with groups such as the Illinois Retails Merchants Association and United Food and Commercial Workers union to get the views of those groups.

He said he hoped that before the June 14 meeting he would have discussions and bring even more stakeholders into the conversation.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.