Business

These cities want to give grocery store workers hazard pay

Posted February 3, 2021 12:22 p.m. EST

— Large grocery chains stopped giving their workers hazard pay for showing up to the job last year. Now, some cities on the West Coast are starting to require it as coronavirus cases rise and the vaccine rollout moves more slowly than anticipated.

Seattle and two cities in California, Long Beach and Montebello, have passed laws requiring that grocery stores, including chains such as Kroger, Albertsons, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, give their workers an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay. The measure in Montebello also requires drug stores like CVS and Walgreens to provide hazard pay to workers.

Union officials, labor experts and local officials say cities are stepping in where the federal government and the private sector have fallen short. They hope that the measures put more pressure on large grocers to reinstate hazard pay across their stores nationwide and prompt other cities to pass similar legislation.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in the grocery, meatpacking and food industries, says at least 134 grocery workers have died from the coronavirus and thousands have been infected.

"We see an increase in food purchases from grocery stores. But we haven't seen a commensurate increase in pay...for those putting themselves in harm's way," Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who introduced the city's measure, said in an interview. "What we have seen is a delay in the vaccination going out, frontline workers continuing to experience higher rates of exposure and contracting Covid."

Industry groups oppose such mandates. Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocery Association, said in an interview that the measures cities have passed will have "unintended consequences."

"Grocers are going to have to raise prices on consumer products to be able to give these raises, or they're going to have to cut shifts to make payroll," he predicted.

Two major chains have made different moves in the past week.

On Tuesday, Trader Joe's said that it was raising all of its workers' pay temporarily to an extra $4 an hour, up from the additional $2 an hour they had been receiving for working in the pandemic. Trader Joe's, however, is forgoing planned mid-year raises for employees, according to a person familiar with the company's decision.

Earlier this week, Ralphs and Food 4 Less, which are owned by Kroger, announced they would close two stores in Long Beach. A Kroger spokesperson said the stores were struggling and the closures were a result of the "misguided decision" by the Long Beach City Council to "pick winners and losers" and require hazard pay for grocery stores in the city but not large retailers.

"Kroger's decision is unfortunate for workers, shoppers and the company," Kevin Lee, a spokesperson for Long Beach, said in a statement.

A 'sizable' bump

Other hazard pay measures are in the works. There are proposals in California cities ranging from Los Angeles to Berkeley to give $4 or $5 in extra pay to grocery workers.

But many of the mandates don't cover workers at the biggest retailers in the country. The majority of the measures are targeted at stores that primarily sell food, so large retailers such as Walmart and Target that sell food and a wide range of goods are excluded. Additionally, those chains do not have stores in some of the cities where laws have passed or are being proposed and are thus not impacted. (Los Angeles, where a proposed bill would cover not only grocery, but also drug stores and big box chains, is an exception).

Despite the fact that some of the largest retail employers aren't covered by the mandates, $4 and $5 hazard pay bumps are "sizable" and will have an "immediate, positive impact on grocery workers in the region," said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the think tank Brookings Institution, who authored a report in November on worker pay at top retailers during the pandemic. For workers, hazard pay will also have a "positive psychological benefit of recognition for the value of their work and their sacrifices," she said.

She predicts that the efforts in Seattle and California cities will lead to more cities and counties around the country mandating hazard pay for grocery workers. But she does not expect that Congress will take up similar legislation requiring hazard pay for grocery workers.

Momentum in cities for hazard pay comes months after it ended for most grocery workers. In the early stages of the pandemic, major grocers such as Kroger, Albertsons and Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, and Rite Aid offered their employees an extra $2 hazard pay for showing up to work. Other chains, such as Walmart, CVS and Walgreens provided cash bonuses for their workers instead of hazard pay. Hazard pay at those stores ended over the summer and since then many chains have provided their workers with additional rounds of cash bonuses.

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