Orange County grocery store clerks have emerged as key frontline workers during the pandemic over the last year, alongside medical workers and others, risking infection while helping scores of residents get food. 

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Given the heightened risks, grocery workers started asking for increased public safety measures and pay since the pandemic began a year ago — a request that officials in Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa have taken up and turned into law. 

[Read: Grocery Workers Plea for Virus Safety Measures as Clerks Deal With Crowded Stores]

On Wednesday, industry groups representing grocery chain food stores mounted a legal battle to prevent these cities from requiring them to pay their workers more, arguing in court filings that the government has no right to intervene in their businesses. 

In previous public statements to city councils this year, industry members have also argued these kinds of ordinances ultimately force layoffs and store closures.  

Yet many grocery workers say their job has really transformed over the past year, helping coin the phrase, “Hero Pay,” to reflect the risks they face.

Local union officials point out that eight grocery workers have died over the past year and about 13 percent of nearly 2,000 grocery workers in Orange County have tested positive for the virus.

Some grocery workers have also publicly noted they have been subjected to harassment over the past year, being spit on, yelled at and insulted while serving the community for less pay, appearing at their cities’ public meetings to speak out on the issue.

“I constantly find myself having to repeatedly ask customers to put on a mask and some of them are not civil about it. They yell. They curse. They insult us. One customer even spit at a coworker of mine,” one Costa Mesa resident told her city council on Tuesday during a meeting before elected officials passed a hazard pay ordinance at.

Derrick Smith of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 said 1,830 of his members have tested positive for Covid-19 in Orange County — “13.3% of our membership.”  

Local 324 represents grocery and other retail workers in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County. Smith said eight of their workers have died as of Thursday.

In February, Irvine became Orange County’s first city to adopt a hazard pay law

Santa Ana and Buena Park both adopted similar ordinances earlier this month. 

Costa Mesa just passed it earlier this week.

All three cities agreed to mandate a $4 pay increase on grocery chains, adding in caveats that would keep locally owned stores from raising wages, but mandate the temporary raise for regional and national chains. 

The cities also included protections that stopped stores from laying off workers and reducing hours to offset the increase.  

The California Grocers Association has repeatedly criticized the hazard pay increases, with their most recent complaint earlier this week from a spokesman in Costa Mesa.

“Based on the negative consequences experienced in other jurisdictions with similar ordinances, we must oppose the ordinance for both policy and legal reasons,” the representative said at the meeting

He also said the association has implemented numerous safety protocols, supplemental pay leave and additional forms of bonus pay.

Following Costa Mesa’s Tuesday meeting, the California Grocers Association filed its lawsuits in OC Superior Court on Wednesday evening. 

These suits are not the first to be filed by the association over hazard pay.

Long Beach and West Hollywood were both sued by the grocers association for nearly identical raises earlier this year.

Supermarket giant Kroger, who owns Ralphs and Food 4 Less, closed several of its Long Beach grocery stores after the city adopted its hazard pay ordinance.

Those lawsuits asked for a similar court injunction association against Santa Ana and Irvine, requiring cities to repeal the hazard pay mandate while the issue is fought in court, 

The Long Beach injunction was denied by a federal judge.

While Irvine and Santa Ana city council members mentioned the Long Beach lawsuit, the majorities chose to forge ahead. 

Currently, Voice of OC is only aware of suits filed against Irvine and Santa Ana, but Buena Park and Costa Mesa are expected to follow in the coming days.

Santa Ana Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan — who championed the city’s ordinance — said she’s “disappointed, but not surprised.”

“There’s a lot to be said there and it’s obviously not my job to tell people how to run their businesses, but my job is to protect Santa Ana residents and that’s exactly what we did,” Phan said, adding her only regret in light of the lawsuits is that the city didn’t pass this policy sooner. 

She said if more of Orange County’s 34 cities joined Santa Ana, Irvine and Costa Mesa on these policies — as well as across the state — it would be more difficult for these grocers’ associations to make their arguments against the pay hikes. 

“One argument has been, ‘Well we’ll close our store here and people will go to our other location in Fountain Valley. If all cities enacted this ordinance, there wouldn’t be that argument,” Phan said. “When there is collective action, there is less likelihood that these types of organizations can bully or threaten us.”

Irvine Councilman Anthony Kuo, one of two no votes against hazard pay in the city, said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit. 

“The language we adopted aside from a number of amendments … was boilerplate language I’m certain provided by the grocery store workers union,” Kuo said in a Thursday evening phone interview. 

“Not to sound cliche, but I think Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. We adopted the same language as the cities that got sued, I said we were going to get sued too,” he said. 

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, the primary proponent of the motion in Irvine, did not return requests for comment Thursday evening. 

Mayor Katrina Foley said she had not seen the lawsuit.

“We crafted our ordinance based on the court’s decision in Long Beach to the extent that the court upheld that ordinance and we hope we are similarly protected,” Foley said in a Thursday evening  phone interview.

Some residents urged the Costa Mesa officials on Tuesday not to pass the ordinance. Others begged them to.

Irvine is set to discuss the issue at their meeting next Tuesday behind closed doors, the first of the affected cities to meet following the suit. 

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

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.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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