Grocery, Drug Store Workers Could Get Hazard Pay

After intense debate, the Burbank City Council appears poised to pass a temporary wage increase for grocery and drug store workers later this month by a narrow voting margin.

The City Council approved on Tuesday the introduction of an ordinance to provide a 60-day wage increase of $5 an hour to workers at large grocery and drug stores. If the council adopts the ordinance during its May 18 meeting, it would go into effect starting June 18 — three days after Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to fully reopen the state’s economy.

The potential ordinance, moved along this week by a 3-2 vote — one approving voice short of immediate implementation — would apply to stores that have more than 10 employees and are either publicly traded or have 300 or more employees nationwide. Stores that have retained their own hazard pay increases would have those counted toward the additional $5 an hour mandate.

Retail stores larger than 85,000 square feet that dedicate 10% or more of their sales floors to food or drug retail would also be included under the ordinance.

Under those criteria, according to city staff members, the ordinance would affect about 20 local stores. Ahead of the City Council’s first discussion of hazard pay on April 17, it received more than 150 emails pushing council members to support a potential ordinance. The vast majority of those were petitionary “postcards” from the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union.

“I was thrilled to hear that the issue of hero pay for grocery workers sparked such a productive conversation [in April],” said Thomas Davidson, a local Ralphs worker who spoke during public comment on Tuesday. “We deal with a disproportionate amount of pressure from both sides of the counter and work twice as hard for the same dollar. Excluding us from the same hero pay our neighbors [in other cities] enjoy would have been an injustice.”

Council members have fiercely debated the topic of the hazard pay, also sometimes called “hero pay,” since Councilmember Konstantine Anthony requested the panel consider an ordinance. This week, he joined Councilmember Nick Schultz and Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes in moving the policy forward.

Proponents believe the temporary wage increase would serve as recognition of the increased and unexpected risk workers have faced since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Grocery stores have remained open throughout the pandemic, they argued, increasing their workers’ exposure to the disease.

“They didn’t sign up for this,” Anthony said. “If you’re a nurse, if you work in health care or you work in a hospital, you know that there’s deadly diseases, there’s people getting sick. And they have hazard pay — I mean, they get paid well because they’re risking their life. … A bagger at a grocery store a year ago never would have taken the job thinking, ‘Oh, I could die doing this.’”

The city staff report submitted to the council also pointed out that while some large grocery chains initially provided hourly wage increases, many of those have since expired. Those chains reported record profits last year, but more recently have projected declines in their profit margins.

Councilmember Sharon Springer and Mayor Bob Frutos remained against the potential policy, however. On Tuesday, Springer pressed supporters to consider the negative consequences she believes would occur if the ordinance passes.

In particular, Springer said she was concerned that grocery and drug stores would simply pass along their newfound expenses to consumers by raising product prices, cutting employees’ hours or reducing the number of positions altogether. The California Grocers Association, which represents many large grocery store chains, previously sent a letter to the city warning of those possibilities if hazard pay receives approval.

“Corporations do not accept additional costs — they neutralize them,” Springer said. “I want you to please tell me who are the winners in this scenario. It’s not the workers, it’s not the consumer and it’s not the city of Burbank.”

Springer and Frutos also said they were worried that approving the ordinance would invite legal action from the CGA and other groups, which have argued city-mandated hazard pay interferes with the collective-bargaining process.

The cities of Long Beach, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and others have faced lawsuits over their hazard pay policies, though a federal judge denied CGA’s request for a restraining order against Long Beach’s ordinance. The organization has since appealed the ruling.

Frutos added that he was opposed to the ordinance on principle, pointing out that the city had not given hazard pay to its own employees.

“If we are not willing to give hazard pay to our city workers, our police officers, our firefighters … how can we go outside the city and demand a private corporation [do it]?” he asked.

But Anthony argued that corporations are already doing the things Springer was concerned about — particularly replacing workers with check-out machines and other technology. He also expressed a willingness to shorten the length of the ordinance if Springer or Frutos agreed to support it as an urgency ordinance, an option neither council member took.

Schultz also acknowledged Springer’s concerns, but noted that they felt there wasn’t enough evidence showing they would materialize.

“The reality is, shy of anecdotal evidence, in my view, we don’t really have a lot of cold, hard data,” Schultz said.

Gerald Gates, a Burbank resident and worker at the local Pavilions, told the Burbank Leader that he doesn’t think the grocery store chains will close down stores if the hazard pay ordinances passes, believing they wouldn’t risk either a loss of income or public backlash.

“We don’t think they’re going to hurt their own selves or [their] own businesses,” he said. “They have a good thing going — why would you stop it now by creating a lot of negative press?”

Schultz pointed out on Tuesday that the stores that chains have closed in response to hazard pay ordinances — as occurred in Long Beach and L.A. — were reportedly already underperforming. He also cited the local food workers union, which he said reported that more than two-thirds of its members who work in Burbank are also local residents.

Gates praised the council’s decision, calling its members “fair-minded.”

“We have never demanded anything,” he said. “We’ve only asked for their consideration and they gave it to us — and we appreciate it.”