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Guest Opinion | Peter Dreier: Pasadena Should Join the Growing List of Cities Requiring Hazard Pay for Essential Workers

Published on Thursday, March 18, 2021 | 5:57 am

The Pasadena City Council will vote on Monday whether to require large supermarkets and pharmacies to provide “hazard pay” to their low-wage workers. As essential employees, they have worked on the front-lines through the entire COVID pandemic at great cost to their lives and families. They have endured some of the highest rates of infection due to closure of restaurants, high volumes of customers, and lack of ventilation inside stores.  Many have become infected and have not had capacity to quarantine or shelter in place.  Few of them received on- site testing.

They are the essential workers that politicians keep praising, but they should do more than just offer praise.

We can reward these hard-working employees by requiring the large supermarket and pharmacy chain stores to pay an additional $5 an hour for four months (120 days), when hopefully the worst aspects of the COVID pandemic will be over.

Some call this proposal “hero pay” because these employees have been working hard during the pandemic under dangerous conditions.

This is the right policy for this unprecedented moment.  A wave of support for grocery and drug retail workers is sweeping California cities.

Already, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Montebello, Santa Ana, Pomona, Buena Park, Coachella, West Hollywood, El Monte, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Irvine, Oakland, San Mateo, San Jose, Alameda, Berkeley, and Los Angeles County (for unincorporated areas) have adopted a hazard pay policy.  Other cities – including Burbank, Glendale, and South Pasadena – are reviewing the idea.

It is time for Pasadena to get on board.

The temporary $5 an hour hazard pay would be a four month commitment to workers who for the past year have put their health on the line for the sake of our communities. These workers endured some of the highest rates of infection due to the closure of restaurants, high volumes of customers, and lack of ventilation inside stores.

The hero pay policy would help employees in 37 Pasadena stores that are part of the large national chains (with at least 300 chain-wide employees) that have experienced a significant increase in profit during the pandemic.  These include:

  • Ralphs
  • Vons
  • Pavilions
  • Bevmo
  • Stater Brothers
  • Food 4 Less
  • Smart and Final
  • Sprouts
  • Target
  • Total Wine & More
  • Trader Joes
  • Vallarta Supermarket
  • Vons
  • Whole Food Market
  • CVS
  • Rite Aid Walgreens

Griselda Maravilla has worked at the Ralphs grocery store on Foothill and Rosemead in Hastings Ranch for four years, the last two years as a floral manager. She is a single mother of five kids. When the COVID  pandemic started in March 2020, she and her coworkers wound up working over 12-14 hours a day due to the panic shopping, but without any  advanced notice of any change in their schedules.  Like her fellow employees, she worked in fear and under stress about contracting the virus and inflicting it on their families.  In September, her biggest fear became a reality while she got sick at work. After three weeks she had a negative COVID test and was cleared by her doctor to return to work. But a week later she felt ill again. This time she tested positive for the virus.  She couldn’t go to work and, as the sole breadwinner in her family, could barely make ends meet for her family.

“I know that my employer is making record profits,” she explained. “I believe we deserve hazard pay in Pasadena just like workers like me are getting in so many other cities.

Most grocery and drug retail workers make close to minimum wage. A $5 an hour wage increase for workers like Griselda Maravilla for the next four months would be a real lifeline.

Most of the low-wage employees in these stores do not have a union. But even those employees who have collective bargaining agreements (with CVS, Vons, Stater Brothers, Food 4 Less, and Pavilions) barely make a living wage and face the same health hazards that their non-union counterparts confront every day. In many of these stores, their union – not the company — had to provide proper PPE in the beginning of the pandemic.

But aren’t most grocery workers vaccinated now? Unfortunately, no. The vaccine only became available to these essential workers on March 1. It will take months for all these workers to get vaccinated.

Can these stores afford it?

This hazard pay policy only affects larger chains who have seen record profit due to the pandemic.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, a non-profit non-partisan think tank, the largest 13 retail and grocery companies earned an additional $17.7 billion in the first three quarters of 2020 compared to 2019—a striking 42% increase.

Kroger – which owns Ralphs and Food 4 Less – earned an additional $2 billion in profits in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with 2021. Amazon (owner of Whole Foods) generated total net sales of over $125 billion during the last quarter of 2020,  surpassing the $87 billion  in the same quarter of 2019.   Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and largest stockholder, has seen an increase in his personal wealth grow from $113 billion to $189 billion in the past year, during the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, business lobby groups like the California Grocers Association oppose this idea, but they are “crying wolf,” warning that these big national chains can’t afford the short-term “hero” pay, despite their huge profits and their unwillingness to protect their employees from dangerous workplace conditions. Fortunately, all the other cities that have adopted this policy have ignored those misguided warnings.

So should Pasadena.

If you agree, please contact Mayor Victor Gordo and your City Council member and ask them to vote “yes” on the hazard pay ordinance.  You can contact them at these email addresses:

Mayor Victor M. Gordo,
District 1: Councilmember Tyron Hampton,
District 2: Councilmember Felicia Williams,
District 3: Councilmember John J. Kennedy,
District 4: Councilmember Gene Masuda,
District 5: Councilmember Jess Rivas,
District 6: Councilmember Steve Madison,

District 7: Councilmember Andy Wilson,

Peter Dreier, a long-time Pasadena resident, is a professor and founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.

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