Council Approves $5 Extra Per Hour ‘Hero Pay’ for Frontline Grocery Store Workers

UPDATE: The California Grocers Association filed a lawsuit against the city of West Hollywood on Wednesday over the hero pay.

With a unanimous vote on Tuesday night, West Hollywood’s City Council approved requiring grocery stores add $5 extra per hour to its employees pay  for the next 120 days.

Being called “hero pay,” the extra money is because frontline grocery workers play a significant role in keeping the community functioning during the coronavirus pandemic. Grocery workers now face the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 whenever they come to work; thus they encounter new dangers in a job that was not previously considered dangerous.

Councilmember Sepi Shyne said the extra pay should be considered “hazard pay” rather than “hero pay.”

“Right now in the middle of a pandemic, I can’t think of a more hazardous place to be than a grocery store,” said Shyne, who called it a matter of social justice.

Councilmember John Erickson agreed it was a social justice issue, noting that many grocery store employees are black or Hispanic.

Meanwhile many grocery chains are reporting record high profits during the pandemic since more people are eating at home.

The ordinance would apply to grocery store chains that are publicly traded or have at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 15 employees per store. That would cover the major grocery chains in West Hollywood – Pavilions (Vons), Ralphs, Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, Whole Food, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s and Smart and Final.

However, Trader Joe’s has been paying its employees an additional $2 per hour in “thank you” pay continuously since the pandemic began in March 2020. In January, the company added another $2 per hour onto that “thank you” pay. The Council opted to only require Trader Joe’s pay its employees an additional $1 per hour so that it ultimately matches the $5 per hour being required of the other grocery stores.  

The Council wanted to expand the ordinance to include other big-box national chains in the city like Target, CVS, Rite Aid and Best Buy. However the city attorney said she would need time to come up with the proper language for an ordinance to cover those retailers and would come back with a separate item at the next Council meeting.

Of the seven people speaking during public comment, only two opposed it. Genevieve Morrill, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce,  called it “government overreach.” She said the city did minimal outreach to the businesses about this item.  

Likewise, Nick Rimedio, the chair of the WeHo Chamber’s board of directors, said it was a well-intentioned but bad policy. “It’s the wrong policy at the wrong time for the wrong reasons,” he said.

The other five public commenters supported the increase. Among them was WeHo Ralphs employee Alice Juarez, who said she had to cut her hours from full-time to part-time because the stress of possibly exposing herself to COVID every time she came to work was too much for her.

Rachel Torres of the United Food Workers union supported the pay increase, saying ten of its members have died due to COVID.

In January, Long Beach passed a $4 per hour hero pay increase. The California Grocers Association (CGA) filed a legal challenge to that ordinance which is scheduled to be heard by a judge this week.

It is unknown if CGA will file a similar lawsuit against the West Hollywood ordinance.

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

Erickson pointed out the two stores Kroger closed were in poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods, suggesting this was a bullying tactic to intimidate employees. He suggested Kroger would never do something like that in a predominantly white neighborhood.

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