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Essential California: The fight over ‘hero pay’ for grocery store workers

 A masked cashier helps a customer in a grocery store checkout line
A checkout stand in the Vons grocery store in Long Beach.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Feb. 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

In the early days of the pandemic, grocery store workers found themselves foisted onto the front lines, forced to brave infection while little else remained open. As panic-buyers pushed through the doors in droves, grocery employees were praised as “heroes” for their essential role in keeping society running. Most had little choice but to keep coming to work.

Many major chains offered financial incentives, such as bonuses or temporary raises, to low-wage workers braving possible infection on a daily basis. But much of that so-called “hero pay” had quietly slipped away by May, even as the virus continued to rage.

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Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, the fight over hero pay for grocery workers is again playing out across Southern California.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council backed a plan to temporarily boost the pay of grocery and drugstore workers by $5 an hour, despite warnings that the wage hike could bring lawsuits and store closings. The proposed ordinance — which would apply to grocery and drugstores with 300 or more employees nationally and 10 or more employees on site — still needs to be drafted and returned to the council for a final vote before it becomes law.

[Read the story: “L.A. City Council backs $5-an-hour ‘hero pay’ raise for grocery, drugstore workers” in the Los Angeles Times]

As my colleagues Dakota Smith and Suhauna Hussain explain, the pay boost is supported by unions representing grocery store workers, who argue that employees are risking their lives to stock shelves during the pandemic. But business groups argue it will drive up food costs for families and could lead to store closures.

In January, the Long Beach City Council approved new rules similar to the ones L.A. is considering, mandating an extra $4 an hour in hero pay for grocery workers. Kroger, which owns several supermarket chains, including Ralphs and Food 4 Less, responded by saying it would close two stores in Long Beach.

[Read the story: “Ralphs and Food 4 Less set to close in Long Beach. They blame hazard pay ordinance” in the Los Angeles Times]

“Grocers are making record profits. We go to court this month and we will defend the workers vigorously,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia tweeted Monday in response to the move, citing a study from the Brookings Institution that showed how profits for top retail companies have soared during the pandemic.

[See also: "‘$4 isn’t much’: Closure of Long Beach Ralphs over COVID-19 ‘hero pay’ angers shoppers, employees” in the Los Angeles Times]

A Kroger spokeswoman told Suhauna she couldn’t share specifics about how additional pay affected profit margins at the two stores but said both were “underperforming” even before the Long Beach ordinance went into effect Jan. 19. The spokeswoman also warned that the approval of hazard pay mandates for grocery workers in other cities could lead to more store closures.

Oakland approved a similar ordinance Tuesday; Santa Monica and Montebello have, too. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has moved forward with a similar proposal for stores in unincorporated parts of the county. Several other cities, including Berkeley and San Jose, are mulling their own measures.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s job approval rating among California voters has plummeted, driven largely by dissatisfaction over the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and adding fuel to a Republican-led recall campaign, according to a new poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. Los Angeles Times

California’s early vaccine rollout was chaotic and filled with problems. What went wrong? The Golden State’s early sluggish rollout defies one easy explanation. For weeks, Newsom and public health officials limited vaccine access to health workers and nursing homes, and data snafus complicated the picture of how vaccination efforts are progressing. Experts say the structural barriers of such a large, decentralized state that leaned heavily on 61 local health departments to administer the doses also complicated the response. But the biggest and most persistent problem has been beyond the state’s control: Officials have been hamstrung by vaccine supply shortages and unpredictability from the federal government and the manufacturers. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

LAPD union leaders cut a deal to avoid layoffs, delaying pay increases until 2023. The deal, which must be ratified by the union’s members, represents a major breakthrough for city leaders, who struggled to get league board members to come to the bargaining table to discuss the financial crisis. Los Angeles Times

From a heart-shaped box full of tacos to a “concha bouquet,” here’s a very fun Valentine’s Day gift guide. L.A. Taco

Two social media influencers who were arrested after briefly altering the Hollywood sign to read “Hollyboob” said they did so to challenge censorship on Instagram. On the day of the incident, police said the stunt was intended to raise awareness for breast cancer, but that was just a bonus, according to the influencers. Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

President Biden signed a series of executive orders and directives on immigration that primarily call for the review of, rather than an end to, Trump policies that the new administration has said it would get rid of, according to Biden officials who previewed the actions. Los Angeles Times

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy faced unrest Tuesday from opposing ends of the Republican spectrum over Reps. Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene, underscoring GOP fissures as the party seeks its pathway without Donald Trump in the White House. Associated Press

A Fresno-area school board member who recorded video of himself saying, “This is what it looks like when you storm the Capitol,” will not be censured for his attendance at the insurrection. Some other trustees of the small mountain community school district defended James Hoak, saying he was new to the school board and hadn’t had time to read its bylaws. Hoak agreed with this defense, saying, “I think if I had had the bylaws in my possession by the time I was at the Capitol, maybe I would have been able to read them and be a lot more familiar with them.” (The board’s bylaws are nine pages long and appear to be publicly available on the district’s website.) Fresno Bee

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Californians with disabilities are outraged over vaccine de-prioritization. California had previously planned to deliver vaccines using a tiered system that would prioritize essential workers and people with certain high-risk medical conditions over healthy, low-risk adults. But Gov. Newsom abruptly reversed course last week in favor of an age-based rollout. Los Angeles Times

Twenty-three miles of Highway 1 near Big Sur are closed. Repairs will take months. Los Angeles Times

Picture of a cliffside highway with a big chunk of the highway missing
This is what Highway 1 at Rat Creek looked like Friday morning, after a slide washed out 150 feet of roadway.
(Caltrans)

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Amazon will pay $61.7 million to delivery drivers after withholding tips. Amazon’s settlement with the Federal Trade Commission comes nearly two years after the Los Angeles Times first exposed its tip-withholding practices. Los Angeles Times

Twenty-thousand honey bees took over a Santa Barbara tech company’s empty office. “We were talking a lot as an executive team about how and when to bring people back to the office and how to make sure it’s safe.... It never occurred to me to think of bees.” Quartz

A poem to to start your Wednesday: “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ronnow Poetry

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 64. San Diego: cloudy, 63. San Francisco: partly sunny, 54. San Jose: partly sunny, 55. Fresno: sunny, 59. Sacramento: partly sunny, 54.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Paula Bedford Hauer:

In 1950, I was selected with three other children from Mt. Baldy Elementary to be featured at Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” a radio show about to become a TV hit. Being only 5, what I remember most were the prizes for attending: roller skates, a flashlight and his friendly personality. He asked what I was doing that morning before attending. I said, “Squishing my feet and toes in mud.” “Why?” he queried. “Because it feels so good!” I said. My parents were thrilled to learn that my grandpa in Joplin, Mo., had his radio on and heard the whole exchange.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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