Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – For many, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new clarity to what is important and what isn’t in everyday life. One consequence was fresh appreciation for those whose jobs require daily contact with the disease-riddled public.
Among the most essential and courageous – and not highly compensated – workers are those who staff local supermarkets, putting their health at added risk. Last week the City Council took up the legally problematic matter of hazard pay for grocery store employees.
The hazardous duty compensation would take the form of an extra $3 or $4 per hour on top of regular wages.
Councilmembers said they received extraordinary amounts of comment on the proposal from all sides. And while they were sympathetic, the matter is fraught with complications. Several communities have attempted to require supplemental pay for food store workers. Legal challenges from grocers were quick to crop up, with some closing stores in response.
Questions include what size stores should be affected; whether other types of stores such as large drugstores should be included; the level of premium pay; if credit should be given for voluntary payments; the duration of the requirement; and the legal risk.
The idea was proposed by the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union. Its request was for an ordinance limited to grocery stores; an initial 90-day period unless Humboldt moved to the less restrictive Yellow Tier; that store which employ 500 or more nationwide and 15 or more in Arcata pay $4 per hour extra; and that stores that employ more than 25 but fewer than 500 in Arcata would pay $3 more per hour.
During public comment, the council heard from a grocery store owner who said her business is bearing added costs for employee COVID protection, and that the proposal would result in layoffs. But union representatives who called in said supermarkets have racked up record profits during the pandemic, and claimed that their workers face up to 40 percent added risk of contracting COVID-19. They urged adoption of the hazard or “hero” pay.
Councilmember Brett Watson asked for more detailed information on which to base a decision. He said hazard pay could be onerous for smaller grocers, and was concerned about passing a well-intentioned measure, then being sued. Several cities have been sued by grocer interests, with a suggestion that they could wind up being liable for the extra wages paid to workers under their ordinances. “We have several lawsuits as it is already,” Watson said.
Councilmember Stacy Atkins-Salazar said that “At first glance,” the idea holds strong appeal, given the sacrifice of grocery workers. But she recognized the difficulties business owners have staying open, and their fragility. “We really need to go in depth on the financials of some of these businesses we’re talking about,” she said. “I would hate for us to lose any of our stores or people to be out of work because of this.”
Councilmember Emily Grace Goldstein supports the ordinance. After broad scoping with grocers and workers, she said she was “open to exploring options” but wanted the employees to make a wage commensurate with their risk. She said the formula should be based on number of employees, and that including drugstores in the ordinance “makes sense.”
“This isn’t about punishing businesses,” Goldstein said. “It’s about honoring employees.”
Councilmember Sarah Schaefer supports the ordinance, and said a 90-day effective interval that would expire if the Yellow Tier kicks in would be appropriate.
After more discussion, the council voted 5–0 to have staff research the possibilities, including legal risk, and return with viable options.
A grocery worker's perspective
In the run-up to the council hearing, a local grocery worker submitted these remarks to Mayor Pereira, cc'ing them to the Union and asking for anonymity so as not to further complicate their employment situation.
“The hardships we have faced have been many. People have been so full of emotions: anger, rage, sadness, despair, helplessness... They have lost most of their regular support systems, so we have become therapists, in a way... Many grocery employees this year have been berated and threatened by customers. Physically and verbally. The current hazards for grocery employees are not just about about catching COVID-19.
"We have suffered, for a year, employers that care more about profits than people. Many members of upper management have shown contempt for rules and our safety by flaunting uncovered faces in stockrooms and offices.
"OSHA and other agencies have been so overwhelmed by reports of non-compliance by employers that they are essentially worthless.
"Yet, the owners of grocery stores have been reaping unprecedented profits. Profits that are shared generously with managers of upper management.
"My store has occasionally given extra income to their rank and file employees, but it hasn’t been hazard pay. It was a bonus.
"I called the extra income a bonus because it had nothing to do with exposure; management got more lucrative amounts and hours actually worked were not considered.
"Because of the lack of compliance by my superiors and feelings of unsafe environments, I have been working a reduced workweek for nearly a year. I simply don’t feel safe later in the day, when more people are in the store. Essentially, my income (and hours) have been reduced by 25%, just so that I can feel safer. Safer mentally, physically and emotionally.
"If you are on the fence about a mandatory hazard pay for grocery employees, please think of polling a few workers. Ask if they feel safe or protected. Ask if they feel if though their very lives matter to their employers.
"Thank you for your time. Just hearing that this topic is being considered helps make me feel as though I and others like me actually matter."