LA City Council moves forward with $5 per hour 'hero pay' for grocery workers

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- The Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 Wednesday to preliminarily approve an emergency ordinance to require large grocery and pharmacy retailers to offer employees an additional $5 per hour in hazard pay amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, because the ordinance was not unanimously approved on its first reading, the final vote will come during a second reading on March 3.

"Fair compensation is the very least that our grocery store workers deserve after all they have done for us,'' said Council President Nury Martinez, who introduced the original motion with Councilman Mitch O'Farrell.

"Cashiers, stockers, baggers and so many more have risked their lives every day since March making minimum wage to make sure we have everything we need to stay safely at home to get through this crisis. While these companies have seen massive profits, it has not trickled down to their employees. These companies can afford to pay the hazard pay, they just don't want to."

The $5 hazard pay would be required for all non-managerial employees at grocery or drug retail stores with more than 300 employees nationwide, or more than 10 employees on-site, as well as retail stores, such as Walmart and Target, that dedicate 10% of their sales floor to groceries or drug retail.

The hazard pay would be given in addition to employees' base wages for the next 120 days. According to a report by Los Angeles' chief legislative analyst, which cited ZipRecruiter, the average grocery store worker in Los Angeles earns $17.51 an hour.

During Mayor Eric Garcetti's COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, he spoke about his support for the ordinance:

"I absolutely 100% support the hero pay for our grocery workers and with any good conscience, it shouldn't raise food prices because grocery stores are one area that have record profits, more money than they've had before," Garcetti said.

"I hope they will see this and maybe be inspired by it instead of being threatened by it."

The City Council vote came a day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted an urgency ordinance to require $5 additional pay for national grocery and drug retail employers in unincorporated areas of the county.

Long Beach also enacted a $4 hazard pay ordinance, which was challenged in court. Kroger announced earlier this month that it would close two of its Long Beach stores -- a Ralphs location and a Food4Less store -- in response to the ordinance.

The California Grocers Association has filed federal lawsuits against Long Beach, West Hollywood and Montebello, seeking to declare hazard pay mandated by those cities as invalid and unconstitutional, contending that grocers will not be able to absorb the additional pay without raising prices, closing stores, reducing hours or laying off employees.

"Supermarkets, as we all know, have made high profits, and yet some are threatening to close. It's clearly out of spite or out of an attempt to leverage us," Councilman Paul Koretz said Wednesday.

Los Angeles' chief legislative analyst determined that potential economic impacts of the ordinance include temporary increases of labor costs as a percentage of the company's sales, potential higher prices for consumers, potentially delayed store openings, renovations and wage increases or promotions for employees, potential pressure on struggling stores that could lead to stores closing and reduced hours for some employees.

However, the chief legislative analyst also determined that the higher wages could also benefit other city businesses, as more people would have extra money to buy additional goods. It could also help people pay down their debts and increase their savings, according to the report.

"As the CLA report makes clear, this ordinance comes with trade-offs for both retailers and employees, pros and cons with anything we do, but it should be appreciated that this effort is a temporary measure that increases wages of our grocery and retail workers,'' Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said.

"I want to underscore that it is a matter of justice.''

O'Farrell also cited a moral argument for the ordinance:

"Our grocery store workers continue to show up every day, serving customers and providing the essentials that residents across the city need to stay safer at home," O'Farrell said.

"Their greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 is by definition hazardous work and the money they earn should be commensurate with those risks associated on the job."

Councilman Curren Price said: "There's only one reality under these circumstances and that's the immense risks, the danger that our grocery workers are exposed to every time they clock in ... the CLA report that we had received found that the mortality rate for Latino workers in food and agriculture has gone up by 59% because of this pandemic and for Black workers in retail at 36%. Those are not small numbers," Price said.

"Providing these workers with $5 hazard pay for the next 120 days is the least we can do."

Kathy Finn, secretary-treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents 25,000 grocery and drug retail workers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, said daily conditions have drastically changed for the industry's employees.

"The reality of being a grocery or drug store worker in 2020 and still in 2021 is that your job has fundamentally changed, the risk has increased exponentially, but the pay has stayed the same," she said.

Mikayla Pena, who suffers from chronic bronchitis and works as a barista at a Starbucks inside the Pavilions store in Sherman Oaks, concurred.

"When I came down with COVID it got so bad that I had to use up all my medications, my inhaler, and I still couldn't breathe," Pena said.

"We're ringing up customer orders, making them their daily coffee, and whenever you're interacting with this many people the chances of contracting COVID are so high. We need hazard pay because companies aren't paying us anywhere near what they should be for the risks we are taking to do our jobs."

Councilman John Lee, the only council member to vote no on the ordinance, said he hoped the council could come up with a different solution than this ordinance, which he called "a gross overreach of government into business and what they should be paying their employees."

"At the end, I don't want to affect the people who are going to be hurt the most by this, and that is the people who live in the poorest communities of the city of Los Angeles, the people who live in my district... my biggest fear is for the hard-working families in those areas," Lee said.

Councilman Gil Cedillo spoke about the difficulty that already exists opening a grocery store in Chinatown, in his district.

"Mr. Koretz, you may not have a problem having a supermarket in Westwood, but I can't get one in Chinatown ... while I support this (ordinance) wholeheartedly, I want us to also recognize that reality ... for example, when the Walmart made a business decision to leave Chinatown, they left a void, and so what we have there is an exercise gym, but we don't have a supermarket for residents of Chinatown," Cedillo said.

The ordinance needed to be unanimously approved in order to pass on its first reading. Because Lee voted no, the ordinance will have a final vote on March 3.
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