The City Council will consider an ordinance next month that would temporarily raise wages for grocery and drug store workers.
City employees were tasked with providing options for the potential hazard pay, also commonly referred to as “hero pay,” during the council’s Tuesday meeting. Several California cities have enacted such pay increases, usually for grocery store workers, in recognition of the risk they face interacting with the public during the pandemic.
Following the council’s 3-2 approval, an ordinance will return to the panel for further discussion and a vote on May 4.
Councilmember Konstantine Anthony, who requested the item in February, was joined by Councilmember Nick Schultz and Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes in voting for the ordinance request. Local Ralphs workers and union representatives have also called on the City Council to pass a mandate, which city administrative analyst Erika De Leon said could potentially impact 21 stores in Burbank and roughly 1,400 employees, depending on its scope.
City Attorney Amy Albano suggested using a similar ordinance recently approved in Glendale as a model for a potential policy. Glendale’s directive, like those adopted in some other California cities, applies to large stores that dedicate a significant portion of their sales to drug or grocery products.
Anthony, as well as other supporters, pointed out that many of these stores have seen revenue soar during the pandemic. And while some large companies provided hazard pay to their workers, many no longer do.
“They’re making record profits, and their specific workers are being in dangerous situations that they never really signed up for before this pandemic,” Anthony said.
It was a sentiment expressed by some grocery workers who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting. Ana Sanchez, who identified herself as a 22-year employee of a local Ralphs, said the past year has been the hardest of her career. Besides grappling with the fear of the coronavirus infecting her or her family, she explained, she has also had to deal with customers who refuse to wear masks.
“I’m asking our council to please take care of us,” Sanchez said. “We took care of you. Please take care of us and take care of our families.”
But not everyone was in favor of a potential ordinance. Mayor Bob Frutos and Councilmember Sharon Springer — who also opposed a recently passed provision limiting third-party delivery service fees — expressed sympathy for grocery and drug store workers but balked at the idea of raising their wages.
Springer worried that the ordinance would cause stores to close or raise their prices, which she said could hurt low-income residents. Indeed, Kroger closed stores in Los Angeles and Long Beach in response to hazard pay announcements, though those stores were already underperforming.
Springer and Frutos were also concerned that the city would be unfairly benefiting the types of workers it chose, an opinion shared by Burbank Chamber of Commerce CEO Jamie Keyser, who advocated against the idea.
“There are so many [heroes] out there, so many who have gone to work every day, who’ve gotten sick,” Springer said. “How do we pick and choose?”
Frutos appeared to warm to the concept, however, when Talamantes suggested that other groups — including bank and credit union tellers, convenience store employees and drive-thru workers — be included in the potential ordinance.
But after Anthony and Schultz expressed concerns that widening the policy would invite legal repercussions, the council returned to the original idea — to which Frutos and Springer remained opposed.
Some California cities have faced lawsuits over the issuance of hero pay ordinances. But Albano told council members that Burbank would likely remain protected if it showed it had a rational basis for choosing the types of stores affected by the order — for instance, because their workers faced heightened exposure to COVID-19 without receiving increased pay.
Kroger, which owns Ralphs, maintains that it has already spent billions of dollars to reward workers and keep them safe during the pandemic.
“To be clear, Ralphs is already committed to long-term wage increases,” a spokesperson told the Leader in an email. “In fact, our company announced recently that we will be investing another $350 million in associate wages this year nationwide. However, we are opposed to mandated increases that apply to some, but not all frontline workers and not all companies that employ frontline workers.”
The spokesperson also pointed out that, if the City Council does approve a hazard pay ordinance, it would go into effect not long before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s planned state reopening on June 15.
Jackie Bitmed, a union representative for United Food and Commercial Workers 770, said that the ordinance wouldn’t unfairly advantage grocery and drug store workers, noting that the public has depended on them since the beginning of the pandemic. And while police, fire and health care workers are certainly on the front lines, she added, the employees she represents didn’t sign up to handle public health.
“Everybody goes to a grocery store, even when restaurants were closed,” Gitmed said. “We’re not choosing sides [over] who deserves it and who doesn’t — I don’t want to make that choice. All I know is what these grocery workers went through. … These people deserve to be treated as the heroes that they are.”