At least two Orange County cities have publicly raised the idea of requiring large grocery stores in their areas to give their workers hazard pay for risking their lives during the Coronavirus pandemic.
But these cities have yet to take action, amid legal fallout over a similar hazard pay mandate adopted by Long Beach officials, which has prompted some stores in that city to close and lay off workers.
Santa Ana officials broke ground in Orange County last month as the first city to publicly discuss a mandatory grocery and pharmacy worker hazard pay ordinance.
About a month went by and Santa Ana officials still had yet to see something actionable on their plates.
Yet on Monday, just after Voice of OC called council members about the issue, a late evening announcement came out about a “special meeting” on the topic being scheduled for later today.
To see the meeting schedule and for instructions on how to view it live, click here.
For a moment, Costa Mesa officials appeared to have been mulling over the same thing, initially scheduling a discussion about a mandatory hazard pay ordinance for tonight’s City Council meeting. Yet that discussion has been canceled.
Like in Santa Ana, one idea was to require local large grocery stores to pay workers an extra $4 per hour over their existing hourly pay for 120 days.
But officials later amended their agenda for today’s meeting, removing the topic from the council’s discussion line-up before the weekend.
Asked why the discussion was canceled, Mayor Katrina Foley told Voice of OC that staff needed to do more research on what a possible hazard pay ordinance could look like.
“We want to have things like some sample ordinances, examples of what other cities have done, a survey and a cost analysis,” she said in a Monday phone interview, “so that we can come back to the council with a more thorough report.”
Costa Mesa joins Santa Ana in at least entertaining the idea, with Santa Ana officials earlier this month directing city staff to come back to the council with an ordinance and more information about what they could do.
Officials there seemed largely in agreement with a law requiring the same type of pay raise put forward by Costa Mesa but possibly for a longer period of time, and also applying it to pharmacy store workers.
Santa Ana Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan, who first brought the idea forward last month, told Voice of OC that city staff has had to comb through the myriad of ideas and suggestions council members gave around the implementation and design of a hazard pay policy.
She also pointed to the recent federal lawsuit resulting from one such policy adopted in Long Beach — a city where officials’ actions largely inspired the Santa Ana discussions — as further complicating the matter.
One day after Long Beach officials adopted their hazard pay mandate ordinance in January, the California Grocers Association representing grocery chains and stores filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court.
On top of that, the Kroger Company — which operates grocery chains like Ralphs and Food 4 Less — announced the closure of some of its stores in Long Beach following the Long Beach City Council’s vote.
“This misguided action by the Long Beach City Council oversteps the traditional bargaining process and applies to some, but not all, grocery workers in the city,” said the company in a statement.
Labor organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, in turn, have called the closures an attempt to intimidate essential workers from standing up to the grocery chains.
In both Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, officials reason that the pandemic has shone a light on the importance of many service industry workers — and has redefined across many levels of society what it means to be “essential.”
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,” said Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento at a Jan. 13 special meeting where he and his colleagues explored the issue.
Officials point out that the risk of workers being exposed to Covid-19 increases dramatically in grocery stores and pharmacies, as more people funnel into such places of business at a time where public health measures have limited outdoor, public interactions and gatherings at places like restaurants.
Costa Mesa city staff, ahead of the Tuesday meeting, note in a report that a number of grocery companies initially granted workers such Coronavirus-related pay raises, but it was temporary.
“The impacts of the pandemic subsided in June, resulting in many retail companies ending their temporary wage increase,” staff wrote in the report, “and they have yet to make the commitment to reinstate it.”
The pandemic has killed more than 3,100 people in Orange County as of Monday, including 85 people in Costa Mesa and 545 people in Santa Ana.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.