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Amidst an extensive debate among Southern California cities about whether to grant “hero pay” for grocery workers, the Irvine City Council narrowly approved a mandatory hazard wage increase for these employees at chain stores after a lengthy discussion on Tuesday night.

Originally proposed by Mayor Farrah Khan, the new law requires that all grocery and pharmacy employers in the city with over 20 workers in California and an additional 500 employees nationwide pay workers an additional $4 per hour for the next 120 days.

The law also included provisions preventing employers from firing or penalizing employees to offset the costs.

In a 3-2 vote, Khan and council members Larry Agran and Tammy Kim voted for the ordinance, pointing out that major grocery chains have made big profits during the pandemic that have largely not been passed on to workers.

“We need to get them to be good actors,” Kim said from the dais. “If this is what we have to do to get these publicly traded big box retailers to do what’s right, we have to do what we have to do.”

One of the primary concerns for the council members who voted against the pay raise was a potential lawsuit awaiting the city. The Long Beach City Council approved a similar rule and was sued the following day by the California Grocers Association in federal court, and supermarket giant Kroger closed several stores in the city in protest. According to Khan, the pay raise is still in effect while the litigation moves forward.

The cities of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa both considered moving forward with similar legislation, but talks have stalled. Irvine is the first city in Orange County to approve such an ordinance.

“This appears to be something the legality of which is still up for discussion,” said Councilman Mike Carroll. “I’m a bit concerned about that, just putting on my day job hat, we have a phrase called ‘setting up a date to litigate.’ This is clearly that.”

Councilman Anthony Kuo, the other no vote, asked City Attorney Jeff Melching whether the city could be held responsible for paying the additional pay if the mandated raise was found illegal by a court review. Melching said if sued in federal court, the city would not have guaranteed protection from that.

The broad majority of public commenters who called in were in favor of mandating hero pay, calling for the council to “be brave.”

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we were made essential workers because we are working on the front line. We work so that families can still shop for food, water and other essential items,” said Jose Ortiz, an Irvine Albertsons manager.  “We helped the company triple their earnings, they can afford to accommodate us.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, one of the most prominent unions calling for the pay increase, also put out a statement shortly after the approval, thanking the city.

“Companies like Kroger ended hazard pay in mid-May of 2020 as profits soared and COVID-19 cases surged,” said Andrea Zinder, president of the union’s Orange County chapter. “This temporary wage increase shows workers that their elected officials stand behind them and are grateful for the jobs they do to keep our communities fed.”

One of the commenters to speak out against the motion was Ashley Hoffman, a representative of the California Chamber of Commerce, who said the majority of those earnings have gone toward providing personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 tests and other pandemic response measures.

“While sales have decreased to pre-pandemic numbers, costs on business continue to increase. While these increases will benefit these workers, it’s inevitable the cost will be passed onto consumers,” Hoffman said.

John Park, chair of the city’s Finance Commission, also spoke against the new rule saying it was a violation of the free market.

“Council members should not place their thumbs on the scale to favor special interests, whether they be unions or grocery stores,” Park said.

While the ordinance was originally set to immediately take effect, the council failed to pass the measure with a supermajority, meaning it will be at least another month before the law officially starts. The council will have the opportunity to edit the rule at its next meeting Feb. 23 before it takes effect.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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