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Eighth Ward Council member Devon Reid’s proposal that employees at larger grocery stores should receive hazard pay moved forward in a 4-3 vote at the Jan. 24 City Council meeting.

But some Council members want to hear from businesses that would be most affected by the legislation.

Council member Peter Braithwaite: “I think all businesses right now, we realize …are suffering from the pandemic. I think it’s unfair to make assumptions about any industry without having that conversation.” (RoundTable photo)

“I think all businesses right now, we realize …are suffering from the pandemic,” said Council member Peter Braithwaite, who has two large grocery stores in his Second Ward. “I think it’s unfair to make assumptions about any industry without having that conversation.”

With the 4-3 vote, Reid’s proposal now moves to the city’s Economic Development Committee for further discussion and study.

Reid has scaled down his hazard pay proposal from one that failed to receive Council backing last June. That proposal mandated larger retailers or franchises located in the city pay employees bonuses for work during the pandemic.

He is now proposing hazard pay for workers at larger grocery stores, maintaining they face a greater health risk with the rise of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

“And I think that burden should not be on the city to provide that, but I think on employers that are providing essential services,” he maintained.

Moreover, he said, grocery store workers do not have the protection of a vaccine certification mandate, such as is required for patrons of restaurants, fitness centers and other venues.

At the Jan. 24 meeting, he added another element to his proposal, suggesting that hazard pay be tied to future emergencies “that occur where our workers are … putting themselves in increased hazard.”

Council member Bobby Burns, Fifth Ward, suggested the city might consider setting a minimum standard in such cases, requiring hazard pay for instances such as “where the schools and other institutions are saying to their members, ‘Don’t come to this building, because this is an emergency.’

“And yet, still,” he said, “some of our employers are saying, ‘No, you still need to go to work, because we’ll have a bunch of people at home that still need to shop at our businesses, in particular because they are home.’

“In that circumstance,” he asked, “should we create a minimum standard that says, ‘If that does take place, here’s a minimum standard of what you need to pay people on top of their regular hourly rates’?”

But Braithwaite, whose central Second Ward contains two major food stores,  Valli Produce, at 1919 Dempster St., and Food 4 Less, at 2400 Main St., challenged Reid to talk to the businesses that would be most affected by the hazard pay ordinance, something some Council members maintained did not take place last time, either. 

He said Valli and Food 4 Less “are stores that many residents in Evanston across the town find to be very affordable. And they’re all well-run businesses. 

“And when you speak to them individually, and I have,” he said, “they are all paying a very decent wage to many of their employees, because of a lot of reasons.

“First of all, employment right now – it’s an employee market. So they have to pay their employees a higher wage just to stay competitive. And they’re constantly dealing with a battle of an employee who will leave at a moment’s notice for $1 extra.” 

At the same time that employers are dealing with higher wages, he said, they are also facing issues with the supply chain.

“So at the end of the day, should we pass this – which I don’t think makes sense – to just single out this one industry, which is completely unfair?” he asked.  

“At the end of the day, we’re going to end up paying more than we’re already paying. I would also challenge you,” Braithwaite said to Reid, “to think about the residents who shop at these stores and rely on the affordable prices so they can support their family.”

Hazard pay in the event of an emergency

Reid said he envisioned tying his hazard pay proposal to situations such as emergency declarations by the governor or the mayor, and to school closings in the area, when employees will still be expected to work.

He said the proposal could even be tied to “a terrible blizzard that impacted the city for a few days, where maybe schools were closed, but grocery workers still had to go to work, and they had to find childcare and [face] all of burdens … to go to work to ensure that the folks who need to get groceries have access to that.”

He said his concern otherwise is leaving the impression among people that “we do not care about our low wage, our frontline workers.

“And that’s not the vision I have of diversity,” he said. “That’s not the vision I want for our residents and our workers – to look at this government and think that we do not care about them.”

Third Ward Council member Melissa Wynne joined Braithwaite in raising concerns about not hearing the affected businesses’ viewpoint on the proposal.

“We take into consideration all stakeholders when we make decisions like this,” she said, “and I don’t think they have had the opportunity to come forward and have a discussion with us.”

Nor was she supportive of the proposal to tie hazard pay to future circumstances. 

“I don’t think that that’s good policy,” she said. “This hazard pay is carefully tailored to the specifics of this emergency. And I don’t know how we would determine what the next hazard would be.”

For instance, she said, “Blizzards are bad. But what is a bad blizzard? You know that, over near the lakefront, we can get four feet of snow, whereas out at the Edens [Expressway], it’s maybe six or eight inches. 

“I think we’re trying to predict the future in a way that is casting the net way, way too wide,” she said.

Voting in favor of exploring the proposal further were Council members Clare Kelly, 1st Ward; Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward; Burns, and Reid. 

Voting against were Council members Braithwaite and Wynne, as well as Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward. 

Council members Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, did not vote on the issue.

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.

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    1. Fleming decided not to come to the meeting (she’s basically checked out given her impending resignation) and Suffredin left the meeting early. I don’t know why.