Tustin City Council members this past month became the first city leaders in Orange County to reject an ordinance that would have implemented a temporary $4 an hour pay increase for grocery and drug store workers who have continued to work during the pandemic.

An official with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 324 (UFCW) confirmed Tustin as the only no vote on what’s come to be called “hero pay,” given the essential role of grocery and drug store workers during the ongoing pandemic. 

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Under the proposed ordinance rejected in Tustin, eligible employees would have received “hero pay” for 120 days in addition to their current hourly rate, according to a city staff report. The ordinance would’ve applied to stores that employ “at least 15 employees” in Tustin and “three hundred or more employees nationally.” 

Despite several other cities approving hero pay, Tustin council members disagreed to pass the ordinance in a 3-2 vote on April 20.

Irvine was the first city in Orange County to enact this policy in early February, with Santa Ana and Buena Park following their lead shortly after.

Costa Mesa is the most recent city to institute the $4 increase in March.

UFCW members came out in force during last month’s public council session to persuade the city to acknowledge the sacrifices workers have had to make.

Cristian Martinez, a researcher with UFCW, stressed how essential workers have not been adequately compensated during the pandemic while grocers have made record profits. 

“As we all know, we surpassed the one-year anniversary since the U.S. and the entire world shut down because of Covid-19,” said Martinez. “While the risks of remaining on the job are still high and grocery companies made unprecedented profits during this pandemic, Covid-19-related compensation for frontline grocery workers has not risen in tandem.”

“Think of this job as if it is your only source of income,” said UFCW representative Linda Martinez to council members. “Think of having to assist furious customers who refuse to wear masks, yelling and calling you names.” 

Some fought back tears while sharing challenges they’ve faced on the frontlines. 

Ralphs’ employee Laura Candela, who lost her mother to the virus in January, observed that “the protocols are not the same as the beginning,” with little enforcement of proper sanitation and social distancing measures. Her entire family worked at Ralphs before getting infected.

30-year-old Denisee Gonzalez spoke on her mother’s behalf, whose hours were increased while working at a local Albertsons that took away hazard pay midway into the pandemic. 

“My worst fear came true when we contracted Covid, and to this day, we are unsure how we contracted it as we were all being safe and stayed home,” said Gonzalez. “Yet, my entire family became ill very quickly. My mom had to take time off of work due to her severe symptoms and I had to be admitted into the hospital.”

After battling Covid-19, Gonzalez now must use a wheelchair and a walker while facing other long-term health issues. Both she and her father lost their jobs, so her mother is the family’s only source of income.

Following public comments, council members had opposing views on the ordinance.

Councilmember Ryan Gallagher said he “would not be proud” to pass such legislation, including concerns about the costs of potential lawsuits, the risk of store closures, and the “negative impacts on all our residents.”

The non-profit trade association, California Grocers Association (CGA), has opposed hero pay and has filed legal action against many cities that have passed such ordinances, according to the staff report.

“Firefighters, police officers, health care workers, as well as transportation, sanitation, and restaurant workers are essential, yet grocers are the only businesses being targeted for extra pay mandates,” said CEO and CGA President Ron Fong in a March 17 press release. “These ordinances will not make workers any safer.”

Mayor Pro Temp Austin Lumbard agreed with Gallagher’s concerns, adding that the ordinance would lead to a rise in food costs.

“A 4 to 5 percent increase in labor costs could mean hundreds of dollars in grocery bills to a family of four,” said Lumbard. “Those are the people who are really going to suffer from something like this.” 

Councilmember Barry Cooper argued that “the word ‘hero’ is tossed around a lot lately,” urging that he wishes the city “could give everyone $4 or $5 because it’s deserved. Absolutely deserved. Is it my place to make that decision? Absolutely not.”

In support of the ordinance, Councilmember Rebecca Gomez was “distressed” by the lack of proper Covid-19 protocol enforcement and “concerned that we are not taking this seriously.”

Mayor Leticia Clark highlighted how the ordinance is only a temporary pay increase. She also suggested that emergency coronavirus funds could be used to support this proposal, though such an idea was not included in the ordinance. 

“I think we have a lot of people that are asking for help, and we have the ability as a city to help,” said Clark. “We make decisions all the time with calculated risks, and there are risks here that we have to weigh. From what I’ve heard tonight, some of those risks are worth taking.”

In response to the meeting, Secretary and Treasurer of UFCW Local 324 Matt Bell said that “While Mayor Clark and Councilmember Gomez stood in support of workers, the others sided with corporations. After enduring more than a year on the frontlines of the pandemic, workers are calling on elected officials and holding them accountable for their actions.”

The next Tustin city council meeting is on June 1 at 6 p.m. and can be viewed on the city’s website.

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