Grocers file lawsuit alleging Long Beach’s new ‘hero pay’ ordinance is unconstitutional

The California Grocers Association filed a lawsuit against Long Beach Wednesday, the day after the City Council voted to require $4 per hour in additional pay for grocery workers who continue to be exposed to COVID-19 while working through the pandemic.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court asks that the ordinance be declared invalid and unconstitutional.

The association, which represents about 6,000 grocery stores across the state, is asking for an injunction to stop implementation of the law until it can be brought before a judge.

The suit claims the emergency ordinance singles out grocery stores despite other sectors like public safety, transportation and restaurants, which are deemed essential but have not been required to pay workers extra money.

It also suggests that Long Beach’s ordinance is preempted by a federal labor law that protects collective bargaining process. Some grocery store employees are part of local unions that negotiated pay structures with the grocery chains.

Long Beach spokesman Kevin Lee said the city is aware of the suit but has yet to be served with it.

“Once the City has been served with the lawsuit, it will be reviewed and evaluated and an appropriate response will be filed as part of the legal process,” Lee said.

Ron Fong, president and CEO of the California Grocers Association, said in a statement that grocery stores have already undertaken “a massive effort to institute measures to make both workers and customers safer in stores.”

He warned that the ordinance could lead to higher grocery prices and could even affect store hours, the number of hours provided to employees and possible closures.

Long Beach’s ordinance would apply to companies with 300 or more workers nationally and with 15 employees per store within the city. It would last at least 120 days.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors may take similar action, with a vote expected Jan. 26 on a mandatory $5 an hour pay raise for grocery workers. A representative from the grocers association said it would likely file suit against the county as well, if the measure passes.

The grocery industry has been one of the few sectors of the economy to benefit from economic shutdowns as their stores were deemed essential services and remained open since the shutdowns began in March.

A report from the Brookings Institution said national grocers like Kroger, which includes Ralph’s in its collection of stores, reaped profits as high as 90% above normal during first half of 2020.

Grocery workers have reported that some did receive additional pay at the outset of the pandemic, but that has now vanished, leaving them to work in possibly hazardous conditions while infection rates continue to climb across the country.

Mayor Robert Garcia posted a picture of himself on Twitter Wednesday morning signing the emergency ordinance into law.

“You have earned this hero pay,” Garcia said in the Tweet. “Thank you for your hard work.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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