Long Beach approves $4 per hour ‘hero pay’ for grocery workers

The Long Beach City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance that would require large grocers to pay an extra $4 per hour in “hero pay” for workers who face greater risk in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ordinance was tentatively approved and will go before the City Council for a final reading in its next regular meeting on Feb. 2.

While many businesses have been closed in the pandemic, supermarkets have seen a surge in customers.

“Grocery workers working during the COVID-19 emergency merit additional compensation because they are performing hazardous duty due to the significant risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” according to ordinance. “They are working in these hazardous conditions now and will continue to face safety risks as the virus presents an ongoing threat for an uncertain period, potentially resulting in subsequent waves of infection…”

Councilwoman Mary Zendejas, who proposed the ordinance, said grocery workers deserve extra benefits.

“I think we can all unite in celebrating the work being done by essential workers right now,” she said.

The local law will apply to companies with 300 or more workers nationally and more than 15 employees per store in Long Beach. It will remain in effect for at least 120 days.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this month approved a similar plan that would require a $5 per hour boost for employees at national grocery and drug retailers in unincorporated areas of the county.

Speaking to the council on Tuesday, Christina Mejia, a Food 4 Less cashier, said she see thousands of customers each week.

“We are risking our lives and our families when all the company cares about is profit,” she said. “Hazard pay shouldn’t be a debate or a question. This is something we deserved from the start.”

Cashier Marcus Williams said he has already contacted COVID-19, along with many of his coworkers. One coworker recently died, he said.

“More people are catching the virus and there’s no way we can stop it,” he said. “It’s impossible for them to sanitize everything in the store.”

In a statement last week, Ron Fong, president and CEO of the California Grocers Association, said companies have undertaken a “massive effort” to update store policies to ensure the safety of both workers and customers. Many grocery stores, he said, have already provided workers with extra pay, bonuses and other benefits.

He said the Long Beach City Council’s action will “not do anything to make grocery workers or customer safer. Rather, there will be significant potential negative consequences and would likely result in higher costs for groceries and increased food insecurity that disproportionately hurts low-income families, seniors and disadvantaged communities already struggling financially.”

Several chambers of commerce organizations also opposed the measure, including the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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