By Haley Sawyer
South Pasadena Review
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout Southern California and the world, the South Pasadena City Council is considering premium pay — or “hero pay” — for grocery store employees in town.
A presentation from the city at the council’s April 7 meeting noted that retailers have seen an increase in profits in 2020, while low-wage workers have largely retained their pay rates in spite of facing unprecedented job-related hazards in the past year.
So-called hero pay would be a temporary raise between $3-5 per hour for frontline workers that would last up to 120 days and apply to retail grocery, retail drug stores or large retail that sell groceries and drugs. As written, it would specifically apply to businesses that employ 300 or more people nationwide or have 15 employees in a single store within the city.
“Many of us have been able to meet remotely. Right now we’re not meeting in person because it’s a danger to all of our lives,” said Mayor Pro Tem Michael Cacciotti at last week’s meeting. “But grocery workers, pharmacy workers — they have no choice. They’ve got to be there on the front lines and this has placed certain members of our community in severe danger.”
Cities that have already enacted hero pay include Long Beach, Irvine, Montebello, El Monte, West Hollywood, Los Angeles and Glendale. Additionally, Los Angeles County has enacted such an ordinance for stores in unincorporated areas.
The city’s presentation noted that retailers have challenged the 120-day timeline for the hero pay, saying that food workers in L.A. County have been eligible for the vaccine since March. As also noted, the pay raise could also have unintended consequences, like higher food prices and store closures — Kroger shuttered two Long Beach stores after its ordinance took effect.
Mayor Diana Mahmud said she has difficulty supporting an urgency ordinance for hero pay, which would have it immediately take effect instead of after the usual window.
“I really have serious issue with being asked to essentially choose winners and losers, as I believe the passage of such an ordinance does,” she said. “You’re a winner if you happen to be an employee of either a grocery store or a drugstore, but if you’re employed by ACE, you’re not covered, even though you are facing the same risk.”
Councilman Jack Donovan expressed similar sentiments, but was undecided as to whether or not he supported the ordinance. Jon Primuth showed some support and Evelyn Zneimer favored it, saying she felt a “moral obligation to act.”
Alternatives to passing the ordinance could include conducting further outreach to businesses through the Chamber of Commerce to better understand the impact that hero pay could have. The council could also encourage voluntary pay increases at stores or work with the L.A. County Department of Public Health to make sure proper COVID-19 prevention measures are in place to protect employees.
Cacciotti remained steadfast in his support of an ordinance.
“Mayor makes some good points,” he said, “but when you listen to her, the comments she made, those comments seem elitist. That’s an elitist approach to this issue.”
Cacciotti made a motion, which passed unanimously, for staff to bring an urgency ordinance to the next council meeting, on April 21, that states premium pay be set at an added $3 per hour with a 60-day duration. At 45 days, the issue will be brought back to the council to consider whether or not to extend the ordinance.
“They’ve taken care of our needs for food and drink,” Cacciotti said, “but at the same time we’ve seen 500,000 fellow Americans in the United States die and many of the men and women that work in these stores have no choice but to work there to support themselves and their families.”