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In one night, two major Orange County cities moved forward, one way or another, with the proposal that frontline grocery store clerks deserve hazard pay for risking Coronavirus infections while working essential jobs. 

Santa Ana City Council members turned that proposal into law Tuesday night through an emergency ordinance vote, mandating an hourly $4 hazard pay bump on top of grocery store and pharmacy workers’ normal hourly pay. 

That same night, Costa Mesa directed staff to draft a similar policy for a later vote. 

If council members approve it, Costa Mesa would join Santa Ana, Irvine and Buena Park, which preliminarily approved the ordinance Feb. 23 and needs to pass it once more before it becomes law. 

Irvine was the first in Orange County to adopt a hazard pay law. 

Proponents say workers deserve the pay hike because people are buying more essential goods from grocery stores and pharmacies — spiking their profits — while the pandemic has largely shut down restaurants.

Critics, like the California Grocers Association, say it unfairly singles out grocery stores while leaving out other businesses who employ essential workers. 

Others say the wage increases will raise prices in stores. 

“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 previous letter to the Santa Ana City Council.

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento defended the policy from criticism that it singled out one sector of employers: 

“Some of the comments that were made, boy they were music to my ears, because if we want to help everybody in the city, we should really think about a minimum wage increase.”

Large grocery chains in the early part of the pandemic gave workers hazard pay, but that tapered off as infection rates dropped. 

Santa Ana Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan, who first brought the issue up in the city, said this policy should have come around sooner — especially when the city was seeing “incredible” rates of infections and deaths. 

“In one sense, it’s to make up for the fact that we didn’t do something earlier,” Phan said. 

Santa Ana’s emergency ordinance takes effect immediately and will last 120 days — applying largely to grocery chains with nationwide locations — not small grocery stores.

Local stores already offering workers such temporary raises will get the increased pay credited toward Santa Ana’s minimum $4 requirement. 

The City Council approved it in a 5-2 vote, with council members Nelida Mendoza and David Penaloza dissenting. 

Meanwhile, Costa Mesa City Council members voted 6-1 for staff to come back with an emergency ordinance requiring grocery stores to provide hazard pay. 

City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison said that about 12 stores in the city would be required to offer hazard pay. 

Councilman Don Harper said he doesn’t understand why grocery store workers would receive hazard pay, while other workers like restaurant servers do not. He added that it is not the council’s role to impose rules for grocery stores.

Dissenting Santa Ana council members echoed similar arguments.

Harper also raised concerns about lawsuits against other cities that have implemented hazard pay. 

Harrison said none of those cases have been adjudicated yet.

The actions in both cities Tuesday night also didn’t come without opposition from some residents, chambers of commerce across Southern California, grocery industry groups and retail groups.

The majority of public commenters supported hazard pay in Costa Mesa, many said they face  burdens as grocery clerks dealing with customers who refuse to wear masks and living with immunocompromised family members. 

Many retail workers and community activists also called in to the Santa Ana council meeting to support the ordinance, but grocery store industry groups and some council members disagreed.

Santa Ana Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza, who voted against the ordinance, said the policy would drive away business and punish grocers “who do not need a mandate to show how to treat their employees well and their appreciation.”

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Andrea Marr acknowledged criticisms of the council’s interference with the local economy, arguing they are too intrusive. She also said that hazard pay is the option that would help the most people. 

The Buena Park City Council voted 4-1 last Tuesday to give preliminary approval to a new ordinance making the town the second in Orange County to pass a hazard pay law.

Either Buena Park or Costa Mesa could be the third city to mandate hazard pay, depending on which city council makes a final decision first. 

According to the Buena Park City Attorney Chris Cardinale, the ordinance excludes managerial, supervisory, or confidential employees. 

The City Council is expected to take another vote to finalize the ordinance, with the new law going into effect within 30 days after that. The hazard pay ordinance is set to expire within 120 days of the effective date, or once Orange County reaches the Orange Tier of the COVID-19 protocol.

At last week’s Buena Park City Council meeting, Councilwoman Susan Sonne said the workers deserve the pay hike not just for risking infection, but also dealing with some unruly customers during the pandemic. 

”I have seen post after post … of workers being assaulted, people spitting in their faces… throwing things at them … And their calmness and their continuation of providing us service and support throughout all of those attacks.”

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.

Anthony Robledo is a reporting intern for Voice of OC. He can be reached at arobledo@voiceofoc.org.

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