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Santa Ana approves ‘hero pay’ for grocery workers

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

The Santa Ana City Council approved “hero pay” for grocery and pharmacy store employees on Tuesday night in an effort to support high-risk workers in the city.

The council voted 5-2 in favor of an urgency ordinance requiring grocery store employees in the city to be paid an extra $4 an hour for 120 days. Council members Nelida Mendoza and David Penaloza dissented.

The urgency ordinance, which is effective immediately, applies to grocery stores and pharmacies with more than 300 workers nationally and more than 15 workers per location in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana is the second city in Orange County to approve hazard pay for grocery workers. Irvine approved a similar ordinance in early February. Buena Park also approved a wage hike last week, but the council still needs to take a second vote before it becomes law.

Costa Mesa voted Tuesday night in favor of drafting an urgency hazard pay ordinance. The council will vote on it at a future meeting.

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento and Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan spearheaded the ordinance.

Phan pointed out at the meeting that grocery stores have profited during the pandemic.

“I definitely think that there are a lot of businesses that have done really well and these employees are the ones who ensure that the rest of us can function,” Phan said. “I have spoken to workers and we’ve heard workers today who are asking for this, because every day they put themselves at risk.”

The council was expected to approve the item after a majority of the members came out in favor early last month. At that meeting, the council voted on whether to approve a resolution directing staff to bring the proposed urgency ordinance back this week.

Councilman Phil Bacerra cast a dissenting vote on that item along with Mendoza and Penaloza. At the February meeting, Bacerra was concerned that the city didn’t have the authority to enforce the ordinance and that it could hurt the city’s financial infrastructure to put regulations on businesses.

But he voted in favor of the ordinance on Tuesday.

“Frankly, I still am not 100% comfortable that our City Council is weighing in on this issue,” Bacerra said. “We shouldn’t typically punish reasonable profits and success. But the thing that’s really weighed on me is when you have a company where the profits are growing between 90% and 150% during a pandemic, and those profits aren’t shared with workers who are risking their lives to make sure all of us are able to have essential items, it’s no longer success, it’s absolutely glutton.”

Several cities across the state have been considering hero pay for grocery workers.

The Los Angeles City Council provided initial approval and Los Angeles County approved an extra $5-per-hour wage boost last week for grocery and pharmacy workers.

Oakland, Seattle, Santa Monica, San Jose, Montebello and Long Beach have also approved similar ordinances.

A federal judge ruled in favor of Long Beach last week, upholding the hero pay ordinance.

Opponents of the raises have stated that it potentially opens up cities to litigation. The California Grocers Assn. has sued Oakland, Montebello and Long Beach over the wage hikes.

“I recognize that the people mean well in supporting this ordinance, one would believe that the workers would benefit from such hazardous pay,” Councilwoman Mendoza said at the meeting. “However, this ordinance actually has the opposite effect and workers will suffer tremendously in significant ways. We must also recognize that many grocers already provided hazard pay to their employees.

“Some of the unintended consequences of a yes vote are as follows: increased operational expenses, decrease in profits, increase in grocery prices, decrease in workforce, potential bankruptcy, potential lawsuit against the city of Santa Ana, eventual store closures, hundreds of Santa Ana grocery and pharmacy workers being laid off.”

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