Idea of Hero Pay for Grocery Workers Catching On, but also Facing Severe Backlash from Grocers

The notion of hero pay for frontline essential grocery workers is sweeping across the SoCal region, but also facing some serious backlash in the form of lawsuits and store closures.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to move forward with a proposed emergency ordinance that would require large grocery and pharmacy retailers to offer employees an additional $5 per hour in hazard day amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The city attorney is to return with an ordinance for final approval.

This comes as the West Hollywood City Council asked its city attorney at its Jan. 19 meeting to draft an ordinance requiring $5 per hour extra per hour pay for essential frontline workers. The Council will likely approve the hero pay at its next meeting on Feb. 16.

However, both the West Hollywood and Los Angeles hero pay ordinances will likely face legal challenges once they are passed.

Long Beach recently enacted a similar emergency ordinance for $4 per hour in hero pay, but it was immediately challenged in court by the California Grocers Association (CGA). A hearing is scheduled on Feb. 19.

In response to Tuesday’s vote by the LA City Council, the CGA released this statement.

 “Extra pay mandates will have severe unintended consequences on not only grocers, but on their workers and their customers,” said Ron Fong, CGA president & CEO. “A $5/hour extra pay mandate amounts to a 28% increase in labor costs. That’s huge. Grocers will not be able to absorb those costs and negative repercussions are unavoidable.”

“One unintended consequence would be higher costs for groceries. A recent study found that the $5/hour increase would amount to a $400/year increase in grocery costs for a family of four. This additional cost could lead to more food insecurity and will disproportionately hurt low-income families, seniors and disadvantaged communities already struggling financially.”

On Monday, in response to the Long Beach ordinance, the Kroger Company announced it is permanently closing two of the Long Beach grocery stores it owns – a Ralphs and a Food 4 Less – putting 200 employees out of work.

The grocers association suggests that grocery chains will also close stores and lay off employees in Los Angeles and West Hollywood if their hero pay ordinances are passed.  

The United Food and Commercial Workers union blasted Kroger’s decision as an attack on workers.

“After everything they’ve been through and all the sacrifices and the service our members have provided Long Beach during the pandemic, Kroger responds with this chilling message to workers,” Andrea Zinder, president of UFCW Local 324, said in a statement. “Kroger closing these stores is a clear attempt to intimidate and discourage workers from standing up and using their voice to create better working conditions and wages.”

Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Koretz (who served as a West Hollywood City Councilmember from 1988-2000) called out Kroger on Tuesday for announcing the planned store closures.

“They absolutely can afford this increase, they absolutely should be paying this increase, and if they shut down stores, it’s just out of spite, it’s not because they will struggle to survive because they pay their employees a well-deserved $5 extra as hazard pay,” Koretz said.

The idea behind these hero/hazard pay ordinances is that grocery store workers keep the community functioning during the pandemic, yet they now face a danger – increased risk of coronavirus infection every time they come to work – that did not exist about their job a year ago.    

The Los Angeles and West Hollywood ordinances would both require grocery chains that have at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 10 employees per store to add the $5 hazard pay to all hourly, non-managerial employees’ wages for 120 days.

When the pandemic began in March 2020, some essential businesses, including many grocery stores, gave employees $2 to $4 per hour temporary raises. However, by the end of May, most of those businesses ended the extra hero pay even though the risk of infection employees face when they come to work did not end.   

City News Service contributed information for this article.

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