Council moves toward mandating $4 an hour ‘hero pay’ boost for grocery workers

Long Beach grocery workers could soon be in line for a raise after the City Council voted Tuesday night to draft an emergency ordinance reinstitution hazard pay that could result in $4 per hour increases.

As the pandemic begin to hit the region in late March many grocery retailers began giving so-called “hero pay” with employees receiving $2 extra or more per hour because of their increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, but many phased out this practice as the number of COVID-19 cases began to subside in the summer.

With coronavirus cases once again surging, Councilwoman Mary Zendejas requested that the city step in and draft an ordinance mandating the increased pay.

“This is something that I firmly believe in and—as a matter of equity and fairness—it’s a way as a City Council that we can do a lot of good on behalf of our residents,” Zendejas said.

If the council adopts the ordinance after it’s drafted in the coming weeks, the new rule would cover all hourly workers at grocery stores and could last for at least 120 days. At that point, the ordinance could come back to the council for a possible extension.

An amendment requested by Vice Mayor Rex Richardson limited the impact of the ordinance to larger companies with more than 300 employees nationally.

“I think our intent here is to treat the large publicly traded larger chain grocers differently than the small businesses that are having a difficult time just keeping up with PPE [personal protective equipment] and things like that,” Richardson said.

Mayor Robert Garcia has already expressed his intent to sign the ordinance into law if the council passes it.

“Our grocery workers are on the front line. They’re working hard and it’s been a honor and a pleasure to know many of them, watching them work nonstop to make sure that folks across our city continue to have access to food,” Garcia said. “I was happy when they were receiving hero pay earlier in the pandemic and they should be receiving it now as well.”

The ordinance would go into effect immediately once it gets final approval, but it’s unclear when exactly that could be. Tuesday’s meeting was the last scheduled City Council meeting until Jan. 5.

Several grocery workers also voiced their support for the ordinance during the meeting Tuesday, and they alleged their employers have put them at risk during the pandemic. They said proper protections have not been installed at their job and that workers have been forced to stay home unpaid when exhibiting symptoms of being sick.

Elizabeth Leon, a Long Beach resident who said she has worked for five years in the grocery business, was moved to tears while trying to share her account of being a frontline worker during the pandemic.

“I am stressed out, physically and mentally drained, and I go to work every day with the question in mind, ‘Is today the day?’” Leon said. “Is today the day that I get infected with COVID? Is today the day that I give it to my kids?”

No council member or public speaker voiced any opposition to the ordinance Tuesday night.

The limited time window for the hero pay means it could be phased out as essential workers get the new coronavirus vaccine—something health experts are hopeful may happen by the spring.

The shots have begun to arrive in the Los Angeles area, and Long Beach is expected to receive several thousand by the end of the month.

Although health care workers and vulnerable populations like those living at long-term care facilities are ahead of other essential workers in line to get the vaccine, grocery workers could come soon—along with groups like public safety employees, teachers and public transit workers, Garcia said earlier this month.

Zendejas acknowledged the possibility that the vaccine could alleviate the threat that faces grocery workers but did not eliminate the possibility that this ordinance could be extended past the stated window of 120 days.

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