With the omicron variant of COVID-19 causing a surge of cases, an Evanston City Council member called for his proposal for hazard pay for grocery store workers to be placed back on the table because of the heightened risk they face.
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, at the Jan. 10 City Council meeting amended a proposal that had failed to move forward in June of last year to apply to grocery store workers. He said such workers are “at a heightened risk to some of their other counterparts, particularly their lower wage counterparts, in that the vaccine mandates and vaccine passport requirements do not apply to grocery stores.
“We are seeing hiring issues at a number of locations and sectors, including grocery stores,” he said.
He called for an ordinance to be placed as a special order of business on the council’s Jan. 24 agenda.
Council members could vote on the proposal at their Feb. 14 meeting under his initial reference.
Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, asked Reid why he did not send the proposal through the council’s new Referral Committee. The newly elected council established the committee last year to consider referred agenda items made by the Mayor, a council member, or the City Manager, based on a transparent and established set of criteria.
Reid argued that the City Council moved back to holding meetings virtually in response to the surge in COVID-19, and didn’t feel it necessary to go through the Referrals Committee for that decision. Similarly he didn’t see the need to do so with his hazard pay proposal. “ I think it makes sense to move with haste on this,” he said.
Fleming said she was open to having a discussion. However, she said, “I think there are lot of parameters that need to be figured out.”
Last June, council members voted 7-2 against a more broadly written proposal from Reid: that larger retailers or franchises located in the city pay essential workers an additional $250 per month for work performed during the state’s coronavirus response lockdown period. This proposal focuses only on grocery store workers.
At the time, some City Council members said that Reid had failed to get feedback from businesses and others on the impact of the legislation, and said that figured in their decision.
Reid maintained that was not the case, saying he did reach out or had communication with a number of groups – including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, Kroger and Target – on the proposed hazard pay ordinance.
Council member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, one of the council members who last summer criticized Reid, this time thanked him for alerting him before the Jan. 10 meeting that he planned to propose again the ordinance.
Conversation called essential
“Obviously my position the last time around [was] it starts with the communication with the businesses that would be impacted,” Braithwaite said, “particularly Valli [Produce, 1919 Dempster St.] and Food4Less [2400 Main St.], and so there’s no way that I can support something like this without having a conversation.
“And one of the things that we learned the last time this came up is that some of the stores actually did something for their employees, so I have no idea what their strategy is,” Braithwaite continued.
“Right now, I do know that this comes at a time where all retailers are struggling to find the appropriate staff. And those are just things that I need to have those discussions before with them before I would feel comfortable moving [forward].”
Braithwaite expressed hope that other council members would have those discussions with the retailers in their wards “just so we come with some understanding before taking the next step.
“And then lastly, I’m also concerned that we are limiting this just to grocers,” Braithwaite said, questioning whether limiting to one group would open up the city to legal action.
Responding, Reid said lawsuits were filed against municipalities that took such actions previously and “those lawsuits have since been dealt with, and municipalities have come out on top.”
“The reason for singling out grocery stores is how critical they are, as far as our food infrastructure, to providing nutritious food to folks [in] our community,” he said, “but also looking at the risk that is uniquely created here, and that our vaccine mandate is not applied in the same way to grocery stores as it is for restaurants and fitness facilities and other places where folks congregate in large numbers.”
Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, acknowledged that she had also received a call from Reid, letting her know he planned to make the proposal.
“I think it’s a topic worth exploring,” she said.
At the same time, she said, she had concern that “We’re kind of putting it on the fast track without necessarily giving ourselves the amount of time that we might need – and as I raised the last time this came up – we really have to make sure we bring in the business community.”
Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, noted that there is already a draft ordinance based on Reid’s proposal last year.
“I think that’s already been achieved,” he said.
Council members may end up dropping the issue again, he said, “unless we clearly establish it as a priority for us as a city.”
He joined others, though, stressing “that we need to 100% reach out to the business community. And particularly the ones that reached out with concerns last time.”
Picking up on Burns’ suggestion, Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, suggested that the item be set for discussion at the Jan. 24 City Council meeting, and that the memo for discussion include a copy of the ordinance Reid proposed last year.
If that were done, the council could still act expeditiously on the matter, she said.
Reid said that while he heard what his colleagues were saying, he still had concern how the timetable might play out.
“We had this discussion a while ago. And you know, we have a framework for this,” he said. “We know what the business community is going to say. They’re going to say, ‘We don’t want to do this. This is illegal. …’ You know, what they said last time.
“I definitely want to have those conversations,” he said. “And I will have those conversations and I think my colleagues should, but let’s play this out.”
But if for some reason major questions are raised at the meeting in two weeks, he said, the council could hold off on action again – pushing back a final vote a month and a half or two months.
“I’m happy that we’re moving this forward,” he said after council members voted to set the issue as a special order of business for discussion at the Jan. 24 meeting.
“But I do hope that we really do work with haste and imagine ourselves and our family and the ones that we love as workers at grocery stores and other essential workers. … Unlike some other employees, they’re not health care workers. They didn’t sign up to be necessarily on the front line … during a pandemic, but they still are.”
I think this is overstepping the limits of what the City should be involved in. At what point would the City then want to be involved in setting everyone’s pay based upon perceived (by the City) risk. What else would the City want to get involved in that is not a direct threat to health and safety. This would then teach local businesses that they do not control their own businesses and would encourage them to move some where they can.
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