Santa Ana City Council members could be moving to give grocery store and pharmacy employees a pay bump during the pandemic, following two other Orange County cities.
After months of debate, council members on Tuesday will decide whether local grocery store and pharmacy workers deserve hazard pay for risking coronavirus infection working in jobs deemed essential by state and federal health guidelines.
On the table at the Tuesday City Council meeting is an ordinance requiring stores to provide employees an additional $4 per hour on top of their existing hourly pay for 120 days, starting from the effective date of the ordinance.
While Santa Ana was the first to publicly mull over the idea, others in Orange County — Buena Park and Irvine — beat the city to the punch, approving very similar policies this month.
The mandate would apply to grocery stores and retail (publicly-traded) pharmacies that employ more than 300 workers nationally and more than 15 employees per grocery store or retail pharmacy in Santa Ana.
City Council members can either adopt the policy, drafted and put forward by city staff, as an “urgency” ordinance or regular ordinance.
The difference between the two, staff say, is that the urgency ordinance would become effective immediately if supported by at least two-thirds of the council, whereas a regular ordinance would need a simple majority and take effect 30 days after a second reading of the policy.
Santa Ana officials have been considering the idea since January, though disagreement on the council and lingering questions over the proposed policy’s possible legal fallout has pushed the issue all the way till the end of this month.
Other cities across California like Santa Monica, Montebello, and Oakland have approved such policies as well.
The idea of “hero pay” began in Long Beach, where Santa Ana city staff point out officials there face a lawsuit by the California Grocers Association, which claims the hazard pay policy singles out certain grocers while ignoring other groups that employ essential workers.
Last week, a Los Angeles federal judge blocked the Grocer Association’s request for a preliminary injunction to temporarily overturn the pay hike in Long Beach, according to the Long Beach Post. The lawsuit is expected to proceed.
Industry groups sent similar warnings to the Santa Ana City Council when officials last debated the issue in public:
“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.
Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan requested the discussion in January and her colleagues that support the measure say that large grocers have seen their profits skyrocket during the pandemic, which has closed businesses and limited people’s food options.
Early on in the pandemic, store chains gave their employees hazard pay, but much of the practice ended last year during periods where many thought the pandemic to be subsiding somewhat.
In January, Phan said retailers should be sharing some of the profits with their workers.
“When you’re looking at a store like Walmart making huge profit … workers deserve just a little bit of that.”
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.