The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday 4-1 to begin instituting a mandatory $5 per hour extra “hero pay” wage addition for food and drug store employees in unincorporated parts of the county.
The new mandate, first proposed in early January by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell, would also only apply to publicly traded store chains or those that have at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 10 workers per store. The mandate is due to come into effect Friday and last 120 days, meaning that the additional pay will continue through late June. Other stores that sell food and beverages, such as liquor stores, would also be covered by the ordinance.
The mandate was written largely in response to the risk that food store workers have taken since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Food store workers have generally earned lower wages while also experiencing higher than normal COVID-19 transmission and death rates. According to the Supervisors who wrote the bill, the “hero pay” would act as a hazard pay due to the risk.
“These workers have put their lives on the line since the beginning of the pandemic to keep our food supply chain running and provide access to medicine our families need,” Supervisor Solis said on Tuesday. “Many are working in fear and without adequate financial support, while their employers continue to see profits grow and top executives receive steep pay bonuses.”
However, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the lone vote against the mandate on Tuesday, noted that the extra pay would put undue strain on grocery stores, especially those in lower-income neighborhoods, due to them having to pay the new mandate themselves, as well the mandate leaving out all other essential workers.
“I would hate to think we’re driving out of business the very businesses we fought so hard to locate in unincorporated areas, many of which are working class neighborhoods and that’s why I can’t vote for this,” Barger said.
A forgotten lesson in Long Beach, upcoming lawsuits
While some cities in California have implemented similar temporary raises because of COVID-19 since the beginning of 2021, some have seen a noticeable strain on food stores to pay the higher wages. Following Long Beach’s “hero pay” bump in January, several supermarkets in the city had to close due to the forced higher wages.
The situation in Long Beach became so bad this month that the California Grocers Association (CGA) sued the city of Long Beach for severely hurting their businesses.
“There’s no way grocers can absorb that big of a cost increase without an offset somewhere else, considering grocers operate with razor thin margins and many stores already operate in the red,” CGA President and CEO Ron Fong said. “We’re going to be forced to sue Los Angeles County if it passes, and that’s just unfortunate because it means we will comply obviously with an ordinance that has been passed legally, and the time clock starts as to making it harder for independent businesses doing business in the county of Los Angeles.”
Many in the grocery business also noted similar discontent following the vote on Wednesday.
“With this passing and Los Angeles probably passing their own version today, this is just going to hurt an industry and individual stores that have done so much for people during the pandemic,” Xavier Boll, a supermarket manager in Los Angeles, told the Globe. “A lot of the more shakier stores in terms of finances are stores in unincorporated areas or neighborhoods that are low income. And like Long Beach, we could see stores in these areas be shut down because of simple dollars and cents. Do these supervisors want food deserts and more difficult to access food stores? Because that’s what they’re doing by instituting mandatory pay bumps without even checking to see if it is affordable.”
“They’re looking at the overall chain and parent company profits, not the individual stores. That is reckless. They wanted so badly to give workers more money that they didn’t have to pay for they forgot to check if it was even doable for some of these stores. To quote Jurassic Park, ‘They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ And now look at where it got us.”
Elena Garcia, another LA County food store manager, agreed with Boll.
“Why do we have to pay this if our margins are so thin? Seriously,” added Garcia in a Globe interview. “Why didn’t the County or state or even the federal government pay this if it was so important? The burden is suddenly on the people who helped keep Californians safe and fed for 11 months.”
LA County’s mandate will become active Friday. LA city is expected to vote on a similar mandate Wednesday night.