Bay Area Cities, Counties to Consider ‘Heroes Pay' for Food Workers

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The San Jose City Council on Tuesday was set to vote on a proposal that would require large corporate grocery stores, chain supermarkets and retail stores that sell food products to pay employees an additional $5 per hour. Oakland city leaders are discussing a similar proposal.

If passed, the ordinance introduced by Councilman Sergio Jimenez would be implemented immediately and expire when the county's COVID-19 health order is lifted. 

"Alongside doctors and nurses, retail food workers have served the residents of San Jose while taking on tremendous risks," Jimenez said. 

Retail workers, including grocery store employees, are five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, according to a study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 

“Hazard pay is necessary to justly compensate retail food workers for the clear and present dangers of doing their jobs during the pandemic, ensure the welfare of workers, and continue stable operation of our much-needed food supply chain," Jimenez added. 

The extra pay would only apply to food suppliers that have 300 or more employees nationwide. 

Small corner stores, mom and pop shops and smaller ethnic supermarkets wouldn't be subject to the ordinance because they have already been disproportionally hit by COVID-19, Jimenez said. 

In the early days of the pandemic, some grocery stores voluntarily instituted wage increases in the form of "Hero Pay" or "Appreciation Pay," but many stopped, Jimenez said. 

However, those retailers that continued to provide additional wages to workers will receive a credit. That means if a grocer was paying employees an additional $2 per hour in COVID-19-related pay, they would only need to provide $3 more per hour to make up the $5 owed to workers. 

Erik Larsen, a 53-year-old San Jose resident, started working at Lucky's Supermarkets after losing his job at the start of the pandemic.

In a letter to the council, Larsen said the hazard pay was essential for him and his employees who are "critical in the food supply chain."

"I put myself in harm's way," he wrote. "It's really only a matter time that I'm exposed to COVID. Do I deserve more while big corporations are making money hand over fist on the back of my labor? Yes, I do."

He noted that many customers skirted COVID-19 safety protocols, putting employees at a greater risk. Throughout the months he saw many coworkers "disappear," because they got infected while management was "silent."

“I realized this was no joke," Larsen wrote. 

So, his question to City Council members is this, "What is my labor worth?"

The hazard pay proposal was introduced at a Rules and Open Government Committee last week, where four out of the five councilmembers on the committee approved the plan. 

Councilmember Dev Davis dissented and said she worried that grocers would increase their prices to account for the hazard pay, forcing residents to foot the bill instead.

But Jimenez, along with Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, David Cohen, Raul Peralez and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, emphasized how necessary the extra pay is, especially for those struggling to make up financial losses after contracting COVID-19. 

A similar proposal was also introduced last week at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting, where supervisors voted to draft a "Hero Pay" ordinance that would raise some essential workers' hourly pay by $5. 

The additional pay would last for 180 days and apply to grocery/retail stores with 300 or more employees nationwide and companies that are publicly traded.

The motion passed 4-1, with Supervisor Mike Wasserman abstaining because of his financial ties to McDonald's Corp., which would be affected by the change. 

Supervisors will be presented with a "Hero Pay" draft for approval at their Feb. 23 meeting. 

San Jose councilmembers could institute the hazard pay as soon as Tuesday. 

"Let us remember that those workers who put their lives on the line to provide us with food and services do so out of need to care for themselves and their families," Jimenez said. "This is our opportunity to demonstrate to them that we acknowledge their contributions, respect and appreciate their courage, and most importantly value their worth."

The San Jose City Council will discuss the hazard pay ordinance at Tuesday's meeting no earlier than 4 p.m. To watch, click here.

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