Grocery store clerks working in Santa Ana could start getting hazard pay for risking coronavirus infection during the pandemic as early as next month.
A split City Council on Tuesday directed staff to draft an emergency ordinance requiring large grocery stores to pay their workers an extra $4 per hour, on top of their existing hourly pay, for four months.
City staff have until March 2 to bring the proposal back to the council for a vote.
Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who backed the hazard pay idea, said grocery stores should’ve given the raises already, like they temporarily did early in the pandemic.
“I don’t even know why we should have to do this — it should be the industry to take that first step,” he said. “When you see profit margins at levels we see with publicly traded chains, boy it’s hard to ignore and be sympathetic.”
As part of the council’s direction, city officials are expected to do additional research on the policy’s potential effects and weigh the legal risk over such laws that some Los Angeles County cities have already adopted.
Supporters of the policy say grocery store companies have seen their profits surge as an essential industry during the pandemic, which has limited the public to getting their food largely from grocers.
Meanwhile, supporters say, store employees are risking their lives and are often the sole earners for their families without seeing any type of increase in money themselves. Many major grocery stores gave employees hazard pay at the beginning of the pandemic, but discontinued it around the early summer.
Critics of the idea, which includes the grocery store industry, say it’s onerous and will force poorly performing stores to close and lay off workers.
“A mandated pay increase beyond what retail employers can tolerate without raising prices or cutting workforce hours will hurt both consumers and our hardworking employees,” wrote California Retailers Association Vice President Steve McCarthy, in a letter to the council.
The hazard pay proposal barely passed Tuesday, with council members Thai Viet Phan, Johnathan Hernandez, Jessie Lopez and Sarmiento voting in favor of bringing back an emergency ordinance.
Council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, and Nelida Mendoza all voted against the idea, citing different reasons.
Some voiced concern over how the city could enforce the new law and what type of message it would send to grocery chains doing business in a city that already has the highest sales tax rate in Orange County.
Penaloza said that just applying the law to grocery stores was too limited in scope, and in the interest of “standing on the side of labor,” he proposed expanding the criteria to fast food restaurants and other businesses where workers could be considered essential.
He put that into a substitute motion, which failed to get enough support from council colleagues.
The city also faces potential legal fallout.
Santa Ana officials made frequent references to Long Beach, where council members adopted a mandatory hazard pay ordinance and then got hit by a federal lawsuit from large grocery store companies.
At the same time, the Kroger Company that operates a number of stores in that city recently announced it would close several stores as a result of the city’s new law.
“I believe it’s just gonna be very disappointing to our workers because they’re getting their hopes up for some kind of premium salaries and we as a city cannot really promise them that,” Mendoza said before the vote. ”We’re gonna start seeing stores closing, the ones who cannot afford to pay this premium salary.”
Penaloza said “I would hate to mandate this and just isolate it to grocery store workers, because of the amount of essential workers who have been exposing themselves to the community.”
“As much as I want to help our workers, I wonder if what we’re doing is the correct thing to do,” Bacerra said.
Such opposition prompted frustration among those on the council who supported stepping in.
Responding to one point that Mendoza made about the decision being better handled at the state or federal level, Phan said “this is exactly what cities should be doing.”
“I’m not gonna wait around until Sacramento tells me this is okay to do,” she said, adding that as a city, Santa Ana officials “are directly responsible” to its residents and those who work in the city.
Lopez criticized council members for echoing claims made by the grocery chains, which she said are trying to intimidate and discourage cities from such policies in their own self-interest.
“I don’t think this is a moment to use those excuses,” she said. Rather, it’s a moment “to stand by the people who have provided us basic essentials and continue to do it.”
Phan said nothing’s set in stone yet, as the council will have another opportunity to debate the topic when the proposed ordinance comes back for council approval.
“The thing I’m most upset about is that I can’t help all Santa Ana residents who we know are working at stores in other cities,” Phan said.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.