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Irvine is first O.C. city to approve ‘hero’ pay for grocery employees

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

Irvine on Tuesday night became the first city in Orange County to approve “hero pay” for grocery workers.

The council voted 3-2 in favor of an ordinance requiring grocery store employees in the city to be paid an extra $4 an hour for 120 days. Councilmen Anthony Kuo and Mike Carroll dissented.

The ordinance is set to be finalized at its second reading later this month. Irvine City Atty. Jeff Melching said the ordinance will come into effect in about 45 days.

“From the onset of this pandemic, our grocery workers have come to work, interacted with the public, sanitized our carts, kept the stores clean, jeopardized their health and the health of their families and continue to do so today,” said Mayor Farrah Khan, who proposed the item.

“Just in Irvine we have had over 83 workers contract the virus at work, including one death. Yet, we have seen grocery store profits substantially rise throughout this pandemic. In addition, many if not all of these same stores have received federal and state funding to help them through this pandemic. Therefore, this ordinance will not affect their financial stability.”

The council joins several cities across the state that are looking into requiring hazard pay for grocery workers.

Last week, Santa Ana moved one step closer to approving hero pay for grocery employees and the Los Angeles City Council supported a $5-per-hour boost to grocery and drugstore workers.

The grocery chain, Kroger, said last week that it would close two of its Long Beach stores if the city mandates the premium pay. The California Grocers Assn. has sued Long Beach in federal court and has a hearing set for Feb. 19.

Vice Mayor Tammy Kim pointed out that grocery stores have seen rising profits since the beginning of the pandemic, yet grocery workers have seen no personal benefit.

Council members say grocery store employees deserve higher wages as they work through the coronavirus pandemic and ask staff to prepare an urgency ordinance.

“I know we’ve talked about sort of government reach, but if this is what we have to do to get these publicly traded big box retailers to do what’s right, then we just have to do what we have to do because it is not fair for the workers,” Kim said.

The hero pay will only apply to grocery and retail stores that employ at least 20 employees at the specific establishment and 500 or more employees nationwide.

Initially, Khan proposed the item as an “urgency” ordinance. If approved, the ordinance would have been effective immediately. However, the urgency ordinance would have needed at least four votes in favor in order to pass.

Following council discussion, Khan modified the item to a regular ordinance after Kuo and Carroll showed dissatisfaction with it.

Both made reference to the Long Beach lawsuit and said they were concerned with potential litigation.

Kuo said the lawsuit gives him “a lot of discomfort.” Carroll, an attorney, said it’s still up for debate whether it’s permissible for a city to pass an ordinance exercising this kind of regulatory authority.

“This appears to be something, the legality of which is still up for discussion,” Carroll said. “You know just putting on my day job hat, we have a phrase called ‘setting up a date to litigate,’ and this is clearly that.

“I see no path by which we could carry this resolution and provide these benefits, or mandate these benefits, and not end up being part of a similar lawsuit and a costly one at that.”

During the meeting, Khan also referenced that each council member had received a petition signed by nearly 700 grocery workers in the city.

Residents and grocery union representatives spoke in favor of the item during public comments.

“My previous job was actually in healthcare and honestly I feel that I am at more risk in my current position as a grocery worker,” said Marisa Marquez, who works at the Pavilions in the Orchard Hills shopping center. “The necessary steps to protect ourselves from COVID-19 sometimes aren’t taken seriously by the public and it puts everyone at risk. Sadly, we lost one of our team members to COVID last month and that was difficult to deal with for a lot of people.”

A few spoke against the item.

“Is it the council’s responsibility to determine winners and losers and change the basic principles of a free market competitive economy?” said Irvine resident John Park. “I believe the answer is no.”

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