It’s the latest in a series of similar proposals popping up in cities across the West Coast, including in Seattle and elsewhere in California — an effort from policymakers to compensate grocery store workers for risks they have faced during the pandemic. At least 170 grocery employees have died of the coronavirus, and thousands have tested positive, as workers have described the strain of long hours and added responsibility to meet high demand. Some companies, including Kroger, offered hazard pay to workers early last year, though most have stopped.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell (D) said the measure, which she co-wrote, is “really our collective way of acknowledging all of us have a newfound appreciation for what constitutes an essential worker.”
“We’ve already forgotten the run on toilet paper, and these were workers stocking shelves and at check stands when the rest of us lost our natural minds,” she told The Washington Post. “They showed up to work each and every day.”
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Hilda L. Solis (D), who co-wrote the measure, also noted the high concentration of people of color in grocery jobs — groups that have been disproportionately affected by the deadly pandemic.
“I walk into Albertsons and Ralphs, and I see women, I see people of color,” she said. “They’re asked to work overtime for meager pay.”
Labor experts say the move by the nation’s most populous county to pass this measure is notable in the face of opposition from the industry.
In Southern California, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia (D) signed a temporary $4-an-hour pay increase into law in late January, a move that prompted grocery giant Kroger to shutter two stores there, saying it was “a direct result of the City of Long Beach’s attempt to pick winners and losers.” The company, which owns more than a dozen grocery chains, announced earlier this month it would close two additional stores in Seattle after the city passed a $4-an-hour hazard pay mandate for grocery workers.
On Wednesday, Kroger said in a statement: “The recent decision by the LA County Board of Supervisors is deeply disappointing and it ignores the realities of operating a financially sustainable business,” adding that “prioritizing vaccinations — not arbitrary mandates for extra pay — is what will keep the frontline workers protected.”
Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies front-line workers, called Los Angeles County’s move “one of the biggest endorsements of this concept of hazard pay mandates,” especially after industry groups signaled more closures could come.
“I do find it striking that there’s still so much support to move forward,” she said. “It’s a reflection of the ongoing public sympathy toward the inequitable burdens of this pandemic and the idea that this is the time to stand with workers even in the face of potential opposition.”
“It’s probably a signal that we haven’t seen the end of hazard pay mandates,” she added.
In a statement, John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, which represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in four California counties, said the measure was a “good first step in the fight for safety and respect for our members and all workers — union and non-union — who are on the frontlines keeping our communities fed.”
The California Grocers Association, which filed a lawsuit over the Long Beach ordinance, said it is possible it will challenge the Los Angeles County measure as well.
“If it’s like the other ones, we’re going to have to take a good, hard look to see if we can challenge it legally,” Ronald Fong, the trade group’s president, told The Post.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger (R), the sole vote against the measure, said she’s “truly grateful” for essential workers but called it “unfair” that the measure covers only grocery workers, while other essential workers are left out.
“More importantly, I have concerns about the unintended consequences that will result,” Barger said in a statement, pointing to the Long Beach store closures.
Fong, whose group represents more than 300 retailers operating 6,000 stores in the state, said he hadn’t spoken to store owners in unincorporated parts of Los Angeles about how they may respond, but he said store closures are one of three consequences that could result from hazard pay measures generally, alongside higher grocery costs or reduced hours for workers.
Solis, who led the Labor Department during the Obama administration, said she wanted to caution people “not to be afraid of threats you hear from corporations that make outrageous profits and don’t want to share that wealth.”
As for a potential legal challenge to the “hero pay” measure, Solis said, “We’re ready to go to court on this.”
Kinder said it is fair to debate whether local mandates should include more essential workers.
For one, she said, it’s a “flaw of the mandates that they leave out very large profitable companies that directly compete with the grocery stores.”
The Los Angeles County measure includes publicly traded grocery and drug retailers that have 300 or more employees nationwide and more than 10 employees per store location. The Long Beach policy, as another example, includes groceries that sell at least 70 percent food products and employ more than 300 people nationally with at least 15 employees per store, which may exclude retailers like Target and Walmart.
Kinder said local measures could seek to cover more workers and suggested more could be done at the state and federal level, too, to help essential workers.
Kinder credited local policymakers for filling that hole.
“There’s no congressionally mandated hazard pay, no state-sustained program,” she said. “Local governments are doing their best and doing what they can do, which is in their own backyard.”
She said it “absolutely reflects a failure of a more coherent, unified response from the federal level and from employers.”
Solis said she hopes “hero pay” measures across California would incentivize other cities, or other levels of government, to follow suit.
“Sometimes it has to start at the local level, and then it percolates up to the state capitols and Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Abha Bhattarai contributed to this report.