Supes approve ‘hero pay’ for grocery, drug store workers

SIGNAL FILE PHOTO: A shopper walks out of Vallarta Supermarkets with their groceries on March 17, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of “hero pay” for frontline workers at larger grocery and drug retail stores during Tuesday’s regular meeting.

The motion, which passed 4-0, directs county counsel to create a proposed “urgency ordinance” that would require stores in the unincorporated areas of the county that are publicly traded or have at least 300 employees nationwide, and more than 10 employees per store site, pay all of their workers an additional $5 per hour in wages for 120 days once implemented.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, of the 1st District, who co-authored the motion with Supervisor Holly Mitchell, of the 2nd District, called stores in unincorporated areas “food deserts,” with shelves once again emptied as COVID-19 surges. 

“It’s really incredible to see that so many of the people that are impacted by COVID are the essential workers working at these stores and not getting the relief,” Solis added. “They’re exhausted, they’re showing up, (yet) many of them don’t have the luxury of having PPE also provided to them by the grocery store.” 

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, was the only one to abstain from the vote, noting she would like to better understand the potential unintended consequences of the motion.

“Early on in the pandemic and then even over the holidays, when I looked and went to the market and saw the number of people, there’s no question that these people deserve hero pay,” Barger added. “Each and every day these people are putting themselves in a situation where they could contract the virus.” 

Even so, Barger expressed concerns in the pay increase for all employees, regardless of their position or salary, without taking the time to carefully consider the potential impacts of these decisions, including leading to a rise in food prices and costs for residents or reduced hours and benefits for employees. 

“Grocery stores currently report a slim 2.2% profit margin due to additional costs and supply chain issues as a result of COVID-19,” she said in a prepared statement. “This is an important issue and one that deserves careful thought and consideration. The board should engage in conversations with key stakeholders and legal counsel to fully understand any potential impacts of this proposed ordinance before moving forward.”

The motion cited a study conducted by the Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which found that employees with direct customer exposure were five times more likely to test positive for the virus, while another study conducted by the Brookings Institution also found that these top, publicly traded retailers have seen a 40% increase in profit, averaging $16.7 billion in extra profit in 2020 alone.

“The public health crisis and economic unraveling widen the already deep divide between low wage and frontline workers and their employers,” Solis added. “For me, it’s imperative that the county act with urgency to support these workers and make sure that they are justly compensated for the unprecedented risks that they encounter each and every day on the job.” 

While the ordinance is only set to apply to unincorporated areas of the county, the motion is also expected to require county counsel to report back on whether or not it could apply to incorporated areas, such as the City of Santa Clarita.

Other COVID-19-related matters

In addition, Barger announced Tuesday she’d written to Gov. Gavin Newsom, requesting assistance in getting additional nursing staff, specifically requesting additional registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses and respiratory care practitioners from the Army National Guard. 

“Our health care workers have served as the front line in protecting our communities for the last nine months,” Barger’s letter read. “They have worked extended hours, shortened or missed vacation days and stretched staff-patient ratios. They are also some of the most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and remain at risk of spreading it to patients, family members and neighbors.” 

While Barger went on to say that the vaccine remains a light at the end of the tunnel, we still must rely on those health care workers to vaccinate residents.

It’s these health care workers Barger considers the “heroes of this crisis.” 

“They deserve our support now more than ever,” the letter added. “I have worked with Los Angeles County health care workers for more than 30 yeras, and this is the most stretched I have ever seen our system.”

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