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L.A. Council Votes to Move Forward on Hazard Pay for Grocery Workers

Workers re-stock items during special hours open only to seniors and the disabled at Northgate Gonzalez Market, a Hispanic specialty supermarket, on March 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Workers re-stock items during special hours open only to seniors and the disabled at Northgate Gonzalez Market, a Hispanic specialty supermarket, on March 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. | Mario Tama/Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously today 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 vote requested the city attorney to prepare the ordinance and the chief legislative analyst to report on potential economic impacts of the ordinance and potential legal challenges.

Long Beach recently enacted an emergency ordinance for $4 per hour in hazard pay, but it was challenged in court by the California Grocers Association. A hearing is scheduled on Feb. 19.

The Los Angeles ordinance would require grocery and pharmacy retailers with 300 or more employees nationally and 10 or more employees on site to add the $5 hazard pay to all hourly, non-managerial employees' wages for 120 days.

“The health threat that these grocery workers face cannot be overstated — recent studies before the current surge report grocery workers to be five times more likely to test positive,” stated the original motion, which was introduced by Council President Nury Martinez and Councilmen Paul Koretz, Mitch O'Farrell and Curren Price on Dec. 15. “These workers must be justly compensated for the clear and present dangers of doing their jobs during the pandemic by requiring their employers to provide hazard pay.”

Councilman Joe Buscaino amended the motion Tuesday to have the chief legislative analyst report on the potential impacts to disadvantaged communities of color, particularly in South Los Angeles, which has been “identified as a food desert,” Buscaino said.

Before Tuesday's vote, several people, including Stuart Waldman, the president of the Valley Industry Commerce Association, called in during the meeting's public comment time to urge council members to conduct a full economic analysis before voting to have the city attorney prepare the ordinance.

Price and Councilwoman Nithya Raman said an economic analysis would take a long time, and workers need hazard pay now.

Stores are making record profits at this time, many up 30% or more in sales, so the argument that this is going to cause the stores to close down, I think is unlikely...
Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price

“Given how severe the pandemic is right now, given the risks that grocery workers are taking, we, in the (Economic Development and Jobs Committee) discussed the need to move this ordinance along parallel to the report, not waiting for the report first and then instituting the ordinance later,” Raman said.

Waldman also told the council members that they should be focused on getting grocery workers vaccinated instead of giving them hazard pay.

“We don't fully understand why grocery workers aren't getting vaccinated right away. These are people who are seeing people every single day and they should be at the front of the line,” he said. “...Hazard pay isn't going to help somebody who gets sick.”

Ricci Sergienko of the People's City Council said he supported vaccines for grocery workers on top of hazard pay. Regarding the people who would receive the hazard pay under this ordinance, Sergienko said: “They are essential workers and they are frontline workers, they deserve to be bumped up in the vaccination line but they also deserve hazard pay.”

The Kroger Co. announced Monday that it will be shuttering two of its stores in Long Beach — a Ralphs location and a Food4Less store — in response to that city's hazard pay ordinance.

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.”

Koretz 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,” he said.

We don't fully understand why grocery workers aren't getting vaccinated right away. These are people who are seeing people every single day and they should be at the front of the line .... Hazard pay isn't going to help somebody who gets sick.
Stuart Waldman, Valley Industry Commerce Association President

Councilman John Lee expressed concern that the ordinance would include grocery retailers that he believes are medium-sized. He still voted to have the city attorney prepare it.

“I'm worried about the communities that are throughout Los Angeles that are going to be affected by this ordinance passing and stores having to endure a 33% increase in overhead costs and they already go on a razor thin margin,” Lee said.

“I just ask that when we have that (economic analysis) that it pay special close attention and we all have focus on the smaller stores, but also on those mid-range stores as well,” he said.

The California Grocers Association's president and CEO Ron Fong released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying that the hazard pay ordinance would lead to “unintended consequences on not only grocers, but on their workers and customers.”

He said potential consequences include higher costs for groceries and cited an unnamed study which found that a $5-per-hour increase to wages would amount to $400 a year in annual increases to a family of four's grocery costs.

“This additional cost could lead to more food insecurity and will disproportionately hurt low-income families, seniors and disadvantaged communities already struggling financially,” he said. He added that some stores might have to close down due to the ordinance.

Price said during the City Council meeting that he didn't believe the argument some are making that the ordinance would cause grocery stores to close.

“Stores are making record profits at this time, many up 30% or more in sales, so the argument that this is going to cause the stores to close down, I think is unlikely,” Price said.

Buscaino said Tuesday that hazard pay shouldn't be limited to grocery and pharmacy workers.

“I think it's also critically important to recognize the other essential low paid frontline workers, like the janitors cleaning our hospitals, truck drivers, those in the goods movement sectors, even our airport workers or factory workers that are coming into work day in and day out,” he said.

He and Martinez introduced a motion Tuesday afternoon to have the chief legislative analyst explore a hazard pay ordinance for frontline workers in other industries, but it was not immediately clear when the council might vote on that motion.

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