Commentary: Washington employers shine in annual awards ceremony


Washington is fortunate to be a state filled with strong, resilient and innovative employers. We were reminded of that last month during the annual Association of Washington Business (AWB) awards ceremony in Tacoma. 

AWB handed out a record 13 awards at the Evening of Excellence gala on Nov. 17 in categories ranging from Employer of the Year and Manufacturer of the Year to Entrepreneur of the Year and Green Manufacturing. 

The last few years have been exceptionally challenging for employers, but we can draw inspiration from the ways all of the winners and finalists responded to the challenge. Like many employers, Richland-based Apogee Group — the 2022 Employer of the Year — shifted to remote work during the pandemic, and owner Salina Savage continues to go out of her way to take care of employees by paying 100% of the health insurance premiums for employees, among other benefits. 

Step by Step, winner of the Washington Resiliency Award, opened Farm 12, a restaurant and event venue in Puyallup, just before the start of the pandemic. They vowed not to lay off any employees for eight weeks. The business applied for loans, stayed on top of the ever-changing safety guidelines, offered counseling in response to rising mental health concerns, and raised money to support staff and the community. Eight weeks turned into two-and-a-half years, but no one lost their job and the restaurant never closed.

Supporting military veterans is another way Washington employers shine. NineLine Veterans Services of Fife, winner of the Washington Veterans and Families Award, converted five homes into affordable shared housing for veterans in 2021, and continues to innovate new ways of providing transitional support for veterans, families and the broader community. 

And Senske Services of Kennewick, winner of the Excellence in Family-Owned Business Award, gives back to the communities it serves through several charitable activities. The company hosts an annual holiday light show at its headquarters in Kennewick that raises thousands of dollars for the local food bank. Through its Decorated Family Program, Senske installs holiday lights for veterans and deployed military personnel.

Two of the winners have connections to the war in Ukraine. SAFE Boats International, the 2022 Manufacturer of the Year, recently received the largest contract in company history to produce eight Mark VI patrol boats for the Ukraine Navy. 

And Seattle-based BRINC Drones, winner of the Manufacturing Excellence Award for Innovation, has manufactured drones that have been used to search for survivors in buildings hit by Russian missiles in Ukraine.

Washington has long been a leader on environmental issues and that was evident in the awards. Bellevue-based QFC, winner of the Leading Environmental Practices Award, is working toward a goal of zero hunger and zero waste in the communities it serves. And in the Spokane region, Inland Empire Paper Company, winner of the Green Manufacturing Award, has reduced its carbon footprint by 30,000 tons per year.

As we enter another period of uncertainty with concerns about a recession, continuing high inflation and a long legislative session scheduled to start in January, it’s clear that more challenges remain for employers and for the economy.

But the annual Evening of Excellence award program was a great reminder that Washington’s employer community is strong, innovative and resilient.

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Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.