*All offices are open with safety protocols in place.
Oakland approved hazard pay for supermarket workers.
Oakland’s City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to require large grocery stores to add $5 an hour onto the pay of workers. The San Jose City Council on Tuesday weighed a similar measure. Other Bay Area cities including Berkeley, Concord and Antioch are considering following suit, according to union representatives.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last week voted to craft an ordinance to give $5-an-hour hazard pay to essential workers in grocery stores, pharmacies and fast food outlets. The supervisors plan to vote on it Feb. 9.
The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to ask city attorneys to draft an ordinance for a $5-an-hour “hero pay” boost for workers at large grocers and drugstores for 120 days. The council still must vote to pass that ordinance.
Meanwhile, Long Beach and Seattle have already implemented similar measures.
“California is definitely at the cutting edge of local governments mandating this,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution think tank who has written reports saying that big retailers should provide hazard pay. “It started in Long Beach, and spread like wildfire.”
In Oakland, the new measure will affect about 2,000 grocery workers starting immediately, according to the City Council.
“The national retail grocery chains are making enormous profits through this pandemic,” said Oakland council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who co-sponsored the city’s proposal. “It seems only fair that we provide hazard pay as a way to appreciate and fairly compensate the workers who are allowing us to continue to purchase the food and supplies we need despite sheltering in place. This is something that is long overdue.”
Her proposal applies to grocery stores with at least 15,000 square feet of retail space and at least 500 employees nationwide. It will last until Alameda County is in California’s yellow tier, a state category where the spread of the coronavirus is deemed “minimal.” Santa Clara County’s ordinance would last for 180 days after implementation, while San Jose’s would last until the county’s coronavirus health orders are lifted.
Some supermarkets said they cannot afford the pay bumps, and that ultimately consumers would pay higher prices if they pass.
“Extra pay mandates will have severe unintended consequences on not only grocers, but on their workers and their customers,” Ron Fong, CEO of the California Grocers Association, said in a statement. “A 28% increase in labor costs is huge. Grocers will not be able to absorb those costs and negative repercussions are unavoidable.”
The trade group, which represents grocery store owners, commissioned a study that said grocery costs could increase substantially if hazard pay is mandated.
Oakland council members noted that the state’s anti-gouging law for disasters would come into play if prices rose more than 10%. Lucky did not raise prices despite offering extra pay throughout the pandemic, they noted.
Fong said that such ordinances cause “real economic harm for many grocers and could lead to store closures.” In fact, Kroger this month said it soon will close a Ralphs and Food 4 Less in Long Beach, after that city implemented a $4-an-hour increase for grocery workers. It specifically cited the “misguided” city rule as a reason for shuttering.
The grocers trade group in January sued Long Beach, the first city in California to mandate hazard pay for supermarket workers, calling the measure unconstitutional. Its court request for a temporary restraining order against Long Beach was not granted, and the trade group is still seeking a preliminary injunction hearing date.
When the pandemic started, many major supermarket chains voluntarily offered temporary pay bumps to their workers — calling this hero pay, appreciation money or hazard pay — but those largely disappeared in June when most shelter-in-place orders were lifted, said Jim Araby, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers 5, which represents about 23,000 grocery workers in Northern California.
“It’s high time to act,” he said. “Grocery workers are more at risk of exposure and infection because they are essential workers.”
The Save Mart Companies, with 16,000 employees at 225 stores operating under names including Lucky, Save Mart and FoodMaxx, was the only unionized supermarket chain to continue its supplemental pay, which ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 an hour in the Bay Area, Araby said. It has committed to continue until the pandemic is over.
Trader Joe’s, which is not unionized, began providing an additional $2-an-hour “thank you” pay for hourly workers at the beginning of the pandemic. On Monday it said it would boost the amount to $4 an hour.
Bas’ legislation would give stores like Lucky a waiver, and also provide credit for any other grocers who were already paying workers extra. Oakland stores that fall into the ordinance’s size criteria include Safeway, Whole Foods, Target and Cardenas, she said.
Grocery store workers, who generally make around $18 an hour — skimpy wages for the pricey Bay Area — said they would appreciate the pay boosts during the pandemic.
“The risks are a lot higher since the pandemic started,” said John Gomez, who works in a grocery store he declined to name for fear of retaliation. “Besides that, suppose we come down with COVID. The sick pay that’s allotted only goes so far. (Extra pay) would give peace of mind that if you have to take time off to quarantine you will have a cushion to pay bills, put food on the table, not have to worry about paying rent.”
The recent emergence of more-contagious strains “adds to the anxiety,” he said. “You think: ‘Is today going to be the day it hits me because of the level of exposure I’m at?’”
Gomez is now double-masking but is acutely aware that while he stocks shelves and watches over the cash register, he’s coming into close contact with myriad people every day.
“There’s not a moment that goes by that there’s not customers in the store in close proximity,” he said.
Kinder from the Brookings Institution, said that the current wave of cities and counties stepping up “reflects how inadequate hazard pay has been to date.” Although Democrats at the federal level discussed the idea, it never made it through Congress, she said.
“These are really small paychecks,” she said of grocery workers. “The job they signed up for was not a dangerous job and suddenly now it is. Every hour they work is a concern to them and their families.”
Meanwhile, retail giants have seen enormous profit growth during the pandemic even while small stores struggle; some shoppers are choosing to go to one big store instead of several smaller ones to limit their exposure.
Mega-retailers are being parsimonious with their workers despite the booming profits, she said. The nation’s three largest grocery providers, Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons, saw profits soar $6.8 billion or 98%, in the first three quarters of 2020, compared to the same period a year earlier, while they provided hazard pay averaging 76 cents an hour, her report said.
President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan calls upon employers to pay more — including back pay — to essential workers who “have risked their lives to stock shelves, harvest crops, and care for the sick during this crisis,” says a White House document.
“They have kept the country running even during the darkest days of the pandemic,” it said. “A number of large employers, especially in the retail and grocery sectors, have seen bumper profitability in 2020 and yet done little or nothing at all to compensate their workers for the risks they took.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will be asking CEOs and other business leaders “to take action to meet these obligations,” it said.