In a single day this winter, a grocery store worker in San Carlos was coughed on twice, sneezed on once, and had to ask eight customers to please wear their masks.
“It takes a toll on my body as well as my mind,” said the 36-year-old man, who asked to be anonymous to avoid being drawn into controversy. He tested positive for COVID-19 early in the pandemic and recovered in about a week.
Grocery store workers everywhere have felt this fatigue, and a Harvard University study found that those who interacted with customers were five times more likely to contract the virus than colleagues not on the frontlines. But now they are finding an unexpected ally in California: local governments.
A push for hazard pay ordinances has erupted across the Bay Area, with elected officials and labor unions in several cities supporting government-mandated hourly pay increases to compensate grocery store workers for the risks they have taken throughout the pandemic.
In response, the California Grocers Association (CGA), which represents more than 300 stores, is suing Oakland and Daly City. The lawsuits claim that the cities’ hazard pay laws violate the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment by prioritizing grocery store employees ahead of other essential workers.
“The way that they single out the grocery industry we feel is unfair,” CGA spokesperson Nate Rose said. “You have some pretty big chains selling groceries, and to not capture them in these ordinances is really anti-competitive.”
The association also cites the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of employees and employers to engage in collective bargaining over wages. “We see these mandates as city councils inserting themselves into the bargaining room that is traditionally reserved for the employees and the stores,” Rose said.
The CGA has threatened to sue any local government that adopts a similar mandate. Other Bay Area cities with hazard pay ordinances include Berkeley, Redwood City, San Jose and San Mateo.
Leon Wong, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Labor Union, responded: “People are comparing grocery workers to healthcare workers and wondering why only grocery store workers and pharmacy workers are included in these hazard pay ordinances. But the high volume of customers, and people that they encounter every single day, puts them at high risk of COVID exposure when compared to other industry workers.”
“Grocery store workers need this extra money,” he added. “They can buy extra PPE’s that keep them safe at work.”
Several local governments have passed mandates that enforce a wage increase in grocery stores with over a certain number of employees, in order to target larger chains and ensure no further burden is placed on smaller stores.
The mandate adopted in Redwood City on April 12 only applies to grocery stores with more than 750 employees. This includes Costco, CVS, Grocery Outlet, Lucky’s, Rite Aid, Safeway, Smart & Final, Target and Whole Foods, each of which belong to the CGA.
Increased consumer spending in grocery stores during the pandemic has been used as a justification for hazard pay ordinances. The Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization based at Harvard, reported that as of April 4 spending had increased by 26.7% when compared with pre-pandemic levels.
The CGA’s legal actions have influenced some local governments. During the San Carlos City Council meeting in which a hazard pay mandate was discussed and ultimately decided against before being put to a vote, Vice Mayor Sara McDowell, who was in support, said that “the threat of substantial legal fees to defend ourselves in federal court gives me pause.” After a federal judge ruled against the CGA’s claims in Long Beach, the association appealed, prolonging the fight..
“We are a very small city and last year we had to make a lot of very tough budget cuts, including laying off some employees, and I don’t want to be faced with that again,” McDowell said.
Even though the San Carlos council did not have the votes to pass a mandate, Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan emphasized the importance of local government acting on behalf of workers. “Some of these stores are doing these things,” she said in reference to hazard pay, “but some of them are not.”
Many stores have not raised hourly wages during the pandemic. Some, however, have passed company-wide “appreciation pay,” “hero bonuses” and “thank you pay” to reward their associates. These have come in the form of hourly raises or lump sum bonuses.
“Under normal circumstances I would not support inserting the government into the relationship between an employer and their employees, but as we know these are not normal times,” Parmer-Lohan said. “These essential workers of whom we have relied on for the extent of the pandemic are on the lower end of the pay scale.”
Despite the widened accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines, Bay Area governments continue to advocate for hazard pay mandates.
“These workers are eligible for vaccines but it will take time out of their work day to get vaccinated,” Parmer-Lohan said.
The San Carlos worker who has endured coughs and sneezes from maskless customers is among them. “I am a hard worker,” he said. “I wake up early, and I do my nine hours.”