In a unanimous decision, the Long Beach City Council agreed Tuesday evening to draft an emergency amendment that would guarantee front-line grocery workers extra money in addition to their regular wages.
The plan, dubbed “Hero Pay” or hazard pay, looks to provide grocery store workers, who are “some of the people most impacted by this pandemic,” an extra $4 an hour, councilmember Mary Zendejas said.
Zendejas, who sponsored the bill, said this item is personal to her as members of her family are essential workers and have been exposed to COVID-19 through their front-line jobs.
“They’re not far from being the only ones who have been impacted in this way from working at our grocery stores,” Zendejas said. “We are at a critical moment in this crisis where things are far more serious than any other point this year.”
This new ordinance would prioritize hazard pay for “hourly-paid members” of big grocery-chain stores, including Albertsons and Vons, while exempting smaller “mom and pop” shops, Zendejas said.
The order would last for 120 days after its approval, but Zendejas added that she hopes the councilmembers will extend it if deemed necessary.
“I hope that all of my colleagues will support this and support our front-line workers who are risking their lives every single day to bring food to our tables,” Zendejas said.
Derek Smith, political director for UFCW324, whose union protects the interests of over 1,200 front-line workers in Long Beach, said during public comment that he supports Zendejas’ plan to give workers additional pay as grocery retailers have profited throughout the pandemic while their front-line workers face the brunt of the work.
“In the beginning of this pandemic, all these chains gave wage increases in acknowledgment for the health risk that essential workers are being asked to shoulder,” Smith said. “As COVID cases spiked in the summer and again in the fall, these companies refused to reinstate hero pay.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, companies including Amazon and Walmart raised their worker’s hourly wages by 6% or less than a dollar while making $6 billion and $4.9 billion respectively throughout the pandemic.
As coronavirus cases continue to rise, both companies have yet to provide hazard pay for their employees. As of Tuesday, Dec. 15, Los Angeles County has confirmed a total of 11,194 positive cases.
“Instead, they opted to give small one-time bonuses or even gift cards for store credit,” Smith said. “It’s simply not enough. Calling grocery workers heroes or essential is not enough.”
Donna Villagomez, a 35-year employee at Vons grocery store, said during public comment that she identifies as an essential worker and feels scared of contracting COVID-19 each shift.
Villagomez said that despite her fears, she continues to go to work because she feels she makes a difference in the community, keeping people “healthy and nourished with food.” She doesn’t, however, receive any benefits associated with working during the pandemic despite the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 interacting with hundreds of customers.
In addition, Villagomez said that maintaining health and safety standards through cleaning and disinfecting falls on the grocery workers themselves as there is no one to monitor, manage or ensure that health orders are being followed.
“It appears to me that being an essential worker at Vons means that I am little more than slave labor,” Villagomez said. “We deserve to be paid hazard pay because we take all the risk.”
Newly elected councilmember Cindy Allen emphasized the importance of taking care of essential workers who have “some of the highest rates of transmission in our workforce.”
Allen said she has met many front line workers, many of whom have no other option but to ignore the stay-at-home orders and continue working.
“These grocery store workers should have their hero pay reinstated for the risk that they undertake just to keep us fed,” Allen said. “By my calculations, it’s about $160 a week per employee, which would make a huge difference to these folks, and it’s not an unreasonable burden on the employers.”
Mayor Robert Garcia announced Tuesday evening via Twitter that he would sign the new law into effect as soon as he receives it.
The Long Beach City Council is not expected to meet until 2021 with no set date yet.