Workers at large grocery stores in Long Beach are now entitled to an extra $4 per hour because of the hazards the city says they face amid the coronavirus pandemic — though the “Hero Pay” wage bump apparently faces a legal challenge, even as other Southern California cities consider similar measures.
The Long Beach City Council unanimously passed the hourly increase as an urgency ordinance this week. The law applies to folks who work for grocery stores with at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 15 employees in Long Beach. It will last for at least 120 days.
Grocery stores across the city — and the region, state and nation as well — have remained open throughout the pandemic, because they provide an essential service. But that also means their employees have had to interact with customers, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus. Public health officials have long maintained that keeping away from those outside your household reduces your risk of contracting the coronavirus.
And while grocery stores have implemented various safety measures and many provided hazard pay early in the pandemic, most have since let the wage bumps lapse, city officials said.
“These folks that are working at these markets and these grocery stores are heroes,” Mayor Robert Garcia said during the Tuesday, Jan. 19, council meeting. “This is nothing new. They have received this type of additional pay in the past and if they deserved it in the past, they deserve it today.”
Long Beach’s temporary “Hero Pay” program appears to be a rare step among cities — though one that could end up leading the way for similar moves.
Seattle in June required that gig workers for food delivery companies with at least 250 employees receive “premium pay.” But beyond that, Long Beach wasn’t aware of other such ordinances, Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais said in a mid-December email, though at that point, he said, staffers had only begun their research.
Los Angeles city, meanwhile, has a similar hazard pay ordinance pending. That initiative, which would pay grocery workers an additional $5 an hour and last until the pandemic’s risk level was minimal, is slated to go before the LA City Council’s Economic Development and Jobs Committee next week, said Angelina Valencia, spokeswoman for Councilman Curren D. Price, Jr., who chairs the committee. Price, whose Ninth District includes landmarks such as Staples Center and USC, is also one of the initiative’s supporters.
The Santa Monica and Santa Ana city councils have also recently signaled they’d like to provide grocery workers with hazard pay.
But the move in Long Beach has set up a battle that pits grocers and pro-business groups on one side against unions and the city on the other.
The California Grocers Association announced on Wednesday, Jan. 20, that it had filed a federal lawsuit against the city, arguing the hazard pay is unconstitutional.
The lawsuit, as of Wednesday afternoon, had not yet been posted on the federal courts website. But there is often a delay.
Still, the suit, which the Grocers Association provided with its announcement, argues the hazard pay ordinance “arbitrarily and improperly” singles out grocery stores, lacks evidence that it would protect public health, and “picks winners and losers.” Because of that, the lawsuit says, the ordinance violates the National Labor Relations Act — which governs unionizing and collective bargaining — and the equal protection and contract clauses that exist in both the U.S. and California constitutions.
Mais, in a Wednesday email, said the city had no comment because it had not yet been served with the lawsuit, let alone had time to evaluate it. Valencia, with Price’s LA Council office, was unable to answer whether the suit would delay that city’s ordinance, and a spokesman for council President Nury Martinez’s office did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
But Ron Fong, president and CEO of the 120-year-old California Grocers Association, said in a statement that while grocery employees are “frontline heroes,” the more than 300 retailers his trade group represents have already implemented various measures to ensure worker and customer safety.
“This ordinance is clearly illegal in that it interferes with the collective-bargaining process and singles out only certain grocers while ignoring other retail workers and workers in other industries providing essential services during the pandemic,” Fong said. “Firefighters, police officers, health care workers, as well as transportation, sanitation, and restaurant workers are essential, yet grocers are the only businesses being targeted for extra pay mandates.
“We look forward to our day in court,” he added, “to contest the legality of this Ordinance.”
The day before the association announced the lawsuit, however, grocery store workers from across the city called into the Long Beach council meeting to speak about their experiences on the job as the coronavirus rages on.
Christina Mejia, who said she works for Food 4 Less, said she and her colleagues worry daily about the possibility of catching the coronavirus.
“I believe me and my coworkers deserve hazard pay after almost a year of enduring these hard times, where this silent, deadly virus is among us,” she said. “Just last week alone, my store had 18,927 customers. Many of those customers can be carrying the virus.
“Hazard pay shouldn’t be a question or a debate. This is something we deserved from the start,” Mejia added. “It should be people over profits, not profits over people.”
While most of the people who called into the meeting backed the item, Christine Bos, the government affairs manager for the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said the organization opposed it.
“Though well-intentioned, this ordinance has been rushed and inadequately studied,” Bos said. “It’s our understanding that grocers were not given a seat at the table when this item was proposed.
“This is not,” she added, “how policy should be created.”
Staff writer Elizabeth Chou contributed to this report.