The Los Angeles City Council is expected Wednesday to finalize 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.
Council members last week approved the ordinance on a 14-1 vote — a unanimous vote is needed for passage on first reading. During the second reading, only a dozen yes votes are required for approval.
“Fair compensation is the very least that our grocery store workers deserve after all they have done for us,” Council President Nury Martinez, who introduced the original motion with Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, said last week.
“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 last week, 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 Board of Supervisors on Feb. 23 adopted an urgency ordinance to require $5 additional pay for national grocery and drug retail employers in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.
Long Beach also enacted a $4 hazard pay ordinance, which was challenged in court. Kroger announced last 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 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. A federal judge denied the association’s bid to temporarily overturn the Long Beach ordinance.
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.
“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 before the measure’s first reading. “I want to underscore that it is a matter of justice.”
O’Farrell agreed, saying “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. 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 the CLA report “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. 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 Peña, 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, who cast the lone dissenting vote last week, said he hoped the council could come up with a different solution than what 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.
The vote is scheduled during Wednesday’s 10 a.m. City Council meeting, which can be viewed at councilvote.lacity.org.