Council votes to move forward on retroactive hazard pay for retail employees


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Ald. Devon Reid (8th). A proposal by Reid to mandate large retailers offer retroactive hazard pay divided City Council on Monday evening.

Joshua Irvine, Senior Staffer

City Council members moved forward on a proposal that would mandate big box employers to provide a substantive payout to frontline employees during the pandemic.

The ordinance, requested by Ald. Devon Reid (8th), would require retailers with over 500 employees nationwide to retroactively pay essential Evanston workers an additional $6 for every hour worked during Phases 1 through 3 of the state’s Restore Illinois program, and $3.50 for every hour worked through Phase 4. 

The proposal was brought  to City Council only two weeks after Reid first requested the ordinance. City staff declined to issue a recommendation on whether the ordinance should proceed, citing a lack of time to conduct research and analysis or solicit public input.

The council ultimately voted to move forward with the ordinance with a 6-3 vote. A decision on whether to enact the proposal will come in the following weeks.  

Some alderpeople expressed concern about the legal viability of retroactively mandating hazard pay, which under the proposal would apply some 15 weeks prior to the date of the ordinance’s passage. Illinois currently remains in Phase 4.

According to Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings, there was no law that preempted the city from passing such an ordinance in the coming weeks. However, he made clear the city could face legal challenges if the council ultimately chose to pass this ordinance.

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) said he wanted to hear more from the business community before signing the ordinance into law. He referenced a Brookings Institution study that found record profits for large retailers despite little pay increases for frontline workers, but also acknowledged that some retailers have provided hazard pay to their employees without a government mandate.  

If the ordinance passed, he said the city would be obligated to offer hazard pay to its own frontline employees.  

“If we come together as a council to say these employees should have hazard pay, it wouldn’t strike me as out of the box to suggest employees of big box companies with more than 500 employees should do the same,” Burns said.  

During public comment, Tanya Triche Dawood, a representative from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, criticized the proposed ordinance, characterizing it as a “slap in the face” to the grocery industry and stores, who she said had spent “a lot” of money on safety and “uplifting employees.”

Council members said they received a letter from Valli Produce, a regional grocer, in which the retailer claimed it had already issued hazard pay to employees. Under the ordinance, employers who paid employees an additional $4 or more for the prior consecutive 15 weeks could continue to pay their employees at that same rate. 

Ald. Melissa Wynne (3rd) brought up how the ordinance could drive businesses away, saying large retailers are a necessary part of Evanston’s tax base. She said that the proposed mandate would put the city at a disadvantage compared to surrounding communities.

But Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) pushed back against Wynne, cautioning the 3rd Ward alderperson against giving retailers too much credit — including those that have provided hazard pay.

“Aside from wanting big box stores and wanting jobs, we want jobs that treat our residents well,” Fleming said.  

Fleming ultimately declined to vote for the ordinance to proceed, along with Wynne and Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd), saying doing so would be hypocritical without a commitment from the council to pay city staff hazard pay as well.  

Among the votes in support of moving the ordinance forward, Alds. Tom Suffredin (6th) and Eleanor Revelle (7th) made clear their votes were only meant to support continued discussion into the ordinance; Revelle said they would not vote for the ordinance in its current form.  

Nonetheless, Reid expressed confidence in his proposal’s eventual success.  

“We have a brilliant council here, we have a brilliant law department and I think we can come together and come up with something that can stand up legally,” he said.  

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joshuajirvine

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