Irvine City Council Backs Proposal for ‘Hero Pay’ Wage Hikes at Grocery Stores

February 10, 2021 Updated: February 10, 2021

A proposed city ordinance that would force grocery and drug store chains in Irvine, California, to pay their workers an extra $4 an hour in hazard pay for the next four months has cleared its first hurdle.

On Feb. 9, the Irvine City Council passed the first reading of Mayor Farrah Khan’s proposal by a 3–2 vote. Councilmembers Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo, both Republicans, opposed the measure, while Councilmembers Larry Agran and Tammy Kim joined Khan by voting in favor.

According to Khan, a substantial increase in grocery chain profits last year is more than enough to cover the costs of “hero pay” for essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the beginning, grocery stores offered hazard pay, and after a few months revoked it—yet the work and the risk of contracting the virus continues,” Khan said. “Just in Irvine, we have had over 83 workers contract the virus at work, including one death.”

Irvine’s ordinance would require big box retailers, grocery stores, and pharmacies—including Ralphs, Food 4 Less, Target, Walmart, CVS, and Rite-Aid—to pay an extra $4 per hour to their workers for 120 days.

Epoch Times Photo
A view of a Walmart store in Irvine, Calif., on Feb. 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The citywide mandate would apply to stores with 20 or more employees, or more than 500 workers nationwide. It would also apply to stores that are 85,000 square feet or more in size, and stores less than 15,000 square feet would be exempt.

The plan has been met with resistance from the California Grocers Association and Kroger Co., which owns the Ralphs and Food 4 Less grocery store chains in Southern California, while the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) supports it.

Proponents say the grocery chains can afford to pay more to their front-line, essential workers; opponents argue the wage rates of grocery store employees are not for the city to decide, and they say some stores could close as a result.

The Council Debate

Councilman Larry Agran said the measure was justified.

“At the start of this pandemic and for some time, there’s been a lot of talk about shared sacrifice,” Agran said. “Well, the fact of the matter is the risk, the sacrifice, is not shared. It’s not shared equally. It’s very disproportionately falling upon the poor—the front line workers—who happen to be, incidentally, disproportionately non-white.”

But Councilmember Carroll, a lawyer, said grocery store chains could potentially sue the city for meddling in a private business. He said the ordinance was “setting a date to litigate,” and could end up being a costly endeavor for the city and taxpayers.

“Just philosophically, I do have some concerns regarding what would essentially be moving into [the] free market economy and changing the economics of grocery stores,” Carroll said.

Giving workers temporary extra pay won’t address their concerns about health and safety, he said. “We don’t have a payroll problem as much as we have a vaccine problem.”

Agran said, “I would suggest that these big box grocers and others take a good hard look at themselves, and a good hard look at what we would think of them in Irvine, if they would force us to defend this ordinance.”

Several UFCW workers and Irvine residents also called in to the meeting to comment on the proposal.

UFCW Local 324, which represents 16,000 workers in Orange County and Los Angeles, said workers deserve the extra hazard pay, adding that more than 10 percent of their union members have tested positive for COVID since the pandemic started.

The union, which represents more than 1.3 million grocery and meatpacking workers, has pushed the U.S. Congress to pass federal hazard pay legislation to benefit essential workers nationwide.

Epoch Times Photo
A worker at Ralphs returns a shopping cart to the store in Irvine, Calif., on Feb. 5, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Irvine resident John Park called Khan’s proposal “an infringement on free enterprise” and “an overreach of city council authority.”

“While I can respect the sympathy for the workers … councilmembers should not place their thumbs on the scale to favor special interests, whether they be unions or corporations,” said Park, who unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in November. “You have no business telling an industry what they should pay their employees, above what is required by state and federal law.”

Christina Shea, the former mayor of Irvine, also told The Epoch Times she opposes the ordinance because she doesn’t believe city governments should set wages for private businesses.

“We are all sympathetic to our business community and our essential workers during these difficult times, but tonight’s City Council proposal by our new mayor is to usher in a socialistic platform to take from the rich and give to the poor,” Shea said via email. “Her plan isn’t equitable or fair to all businesses in our community.”

Unintended Consequences

A recent study commissioned by the California Grocers Association (CGA) found that grocery costs could rise $400 a year for a family of four based on $5 per hour pay hikes, according to a recent CGA media release.

“Extra pay mandates will have severe unintended consequences on not only grocers, but on their workers and their customers. A 28 percent increase in labor costs is huge. Grocers will not be able to absorb those costs and negative repercussions are unavoidable,” CGA President and CEO Ron Fong said in the release.

The release said these types of ordinances could lead to store closures and force grocers to find other ways to reduce operational costs, including a reduction in work hours, “hurting the very workers these proposals aim to help.”

Kroger recently said it would close two stores in Long Beach in response to a similar citywide ordinance. A company spokesman on Feb. 9 confirmed in an email to The Epoch Times that two stores, one Food 4 Less and one Ralphs, are slated to close April 17.

The two “long-struggling stores” were forced to shutter following the “Long Beach City Council ordinance imposing extra pay for some, but not all grocery workers in the city,” according to a recent Kroger media release.

“We are truly saddened that our associates and customers will ultimately be the real victims of the city council’s actions,” a company spokesperson stated in the release.

Irvine’s measure requires three readings to become official. The amended ordinance is expected to pass a second reading within the next two weeks, and a final third reading 30 days later.