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Santa Ana officials are considering whether to require the city’s large grocery stores and pharmacies to increase the wages of essential workers over the next several months as the Coronavirus crisis continues.

At a Tuesday special meeting originally scheduled to address violence at the U.S. Capitol last week, the City Council directed staff to look into a policy calling for as much as a $4 increase for hourly workers over 120 — or possibly 180 — days. 

Whether the issue will become an actual law with teeth, or a nonbinding resolution encouraging such pay increases at the city’s stores, remains to be seen. 

A few council members during the meeting said it could go either way, but the Tuesday discussion for the most part revolved around what an actual ordinance would look like and what its effects would be.

It’s unclear when staff will come back to the council with a proposed policy for approval. 

The issue was brought forward by Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento. 

Both reasoned that as big grocer and pharmacy companies’ store revenues have surged throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, so too must the wages of the workers there who put themselves at risk of exposure to provide for their families. 

Phan said many of these workers “are not being compensated for the risk they’re taking every day,” while pointing out that many can’t “just quit.”

Derrick Smith of the United Food and Commercial Workers union said approximately 1,500 members of his union have gotten sick with Covid-19 in Orange County — 90 of them in Santa Ana. 

“Im confident other cities could follow suit,” he said of Santa Ana’s possible move Tuesday night. “I’ve had conversations about this with lots of elected leaders in Orange County and I have not gotten a lot of political resistance to it.”

Sarmiento said the pandemic has “forced us all to realize who is really valuable … Janitors in hospitals. People who are stocking shelves at grocery stores at their own perils.”

“That’s what this is about,” Phan said, adding she understands there’s an “economic balance we have to reach” as it regards to imposing such a policy on smaller shops. “But when you’re looking at a store like Walmart making huge profit … workers deserve just a little bit of that.”

Her council colleagues agreed, also voicing interest in limiting the pay raise policy to large stores. 

Though Councilman Phil Bacerra asked staff to at least look into ways to expand it, to some extent, to workers at those smaller ones as well. 

“We are trying to be sensitive to the economic realities of small businesses, but I just couldn’t sleep at night if I were not to at least ask us to consider what the impacts would be,” he said before the vote, if the policy was extended to cover those other workers.

Mayor Sarmiento pointed to Los Angeles County, where officials in Long Beach have already gotten moving on the idea. 

Yet council members noted they face a number of questions from the public as to which stores qualify as “large.”

“Is it based on the number of employees? Is it the size of the business? Is it the size of the building … I would like to know those details,” said Councilman Johnathan Hernandez. 

A few council members noted that big chains like Vons, Albertsons, Walmart, and CVS have seen revenues rise exponentially over the course of the pandemic. 

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho Tuesday night also noted that in Long Beach, the ordinance applies to store chains that are publicly-traded. 

Bacerra also voiced interest in possibly extending the time frame of what council members repeatedly emphasized would be a temporary hazard pay requirement, from the original idea of 120 days to 180 days. 

He and Sarmiento pointed to the county’s plans to have every Orange County resident vaccinated around the summer. 

Councilman David Penaloza said this policy “should have happened a long time ago,” recalling one time he went to a local CVS Pharmacy and saw a young worker surrounded by four different people in the cold and flu section. 

“And in my head, I’m thinking all those people in there are probably experiencing some Covid symptoms,” he said. “And here you have this woman trying to earn a paycheck to provide for her family.” 

Smith said that while big grocers have been doing well during the pandemic, they “quietly” phased out the hazard pay they offered workers in the beginning of the pandemic. 

“People throughout this pandemic have been very gracious with our workers, calling them ‘heroes,’ and I think that’s terrific, but it’s important to note our members didn’t sign up to be heroes,” he said.  

Workers at grocery stores and pharmacies “are not getting paid that much. They’re having a difficult time performing a difficult job,” he said, adding: 

“Calling us essential means you have to back it up.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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