Tensions rose over hazard pay in Long Beach Wednesday as grocery store workers rallied outside a Food 4 Less that its parent company, blaming a city mandate to raise the front-liners’ hourly wage by $4, planned to close in April.
Kroger disclosed its plan to shut down the location on South Street along with a Ralphs store on Los Coyotes Diagonal in an announcement Monday, two weeks after the Long Beach mayor signed what he calls a “hero pay” for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city requires stores with at least 300 workers nationwide or more than 15 employees per location in Long Beach to implement the pay bump for at least 120 days. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, according to the Brookings Institution, and other jurisdictions such as Los Angeles are either considering it or have followed suit. Trader Joe’s this week announced increasing its hazard pay from $2 to $4 an in response to Seattle’s own mandate, which the city passed days after the Long Beach ordinance was approved.
“I don’t think anyone that has shopped from this last six months to a year can look into the eyes of one of these workers and tell them that they don’t deserve an additional few bucks an hour for the incredible work that they’ve been doing during this pandemic,” said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who joined union leaders and workers outside Food 4 Less on Wednesday.
Andrea Zinder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 324, accused Kroger of sending a “chilling” message to other cities considering a hazard pay.
A Kroger spokeswoman recently told the Los Angeles Times that such mandates could prompt more store closures.
Long Beach Food 4 Less employee Bertha Ayala wanted to stay home during the pandemic but said that “there’s no way”– she needed the money. Another worker, Robert Gonzales, took issue with the store’s planned closure after he has “risked my life and my family’s lives at home.”
Before the protest, a Kroger representative released a statement saying that the total pay for Ralphs and Food 4 Less workers in Long Beach averaged nearly $24 per hour in wages, benefits and pension. The company called the action by Long Beach officials “misguided” and an overstepping of the traditional bargaining process.
“The irreparable harm that will come to employees and local citizens is a direct result of the City of Long Beach’s attempt to pick winners and losers, is deeply unfortunate,” the statement from Kroger said.
The mandate exempts more generic retailers such as Target and Walmart that also sell groceries, noted the California Grocers Assn., which has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the law.
“It’s a violation of equal protection,” said spokeswoman Kathy Fairbanks.
The Long Beach mayor on Wednesday said the city will continue to look for ways to push hazard pay for other workers. The chief of staff for Councilwoman Mary Zendejas, who authored the motion for the wage increase, said it was designed to help employees of larger grocery store chains that have seen large profit gains during the pandemic.
“Although the Councilwoman feels that Target and Walmart stores that sell groceries should be included the decision was to begin with those stores as defined in the ordinance,” Ray Morquecho said in an email to KTLA.
Neil Saunders, an analyst with GlobalData Retail, told the L.A. Times that while high-performing stores could absorb the extra pay for workers, companies such as Kroger can cite significant pay raises to shutter the doors of struggling locations. He said that a wage bump is “certainly something that’s going to erode profitability.”
As workers rallied outside Food 4 Less, one shopper said that as someone who works as a plumber, he wouldn’t mind paying a little extra to ensure that workers get rightfully compensated.
“When I look at the whole picture, I would consider an extra 2, 3, 4 cents per product not that much of an issue,” said Robert Trotman. “These are our brothers and sisters that work at this store.”