Antioch Council moves forward hazard pay for large grocery store workers proposal

Three members support effort; city staff will return with ordinance for adoption; could increase costs to families; city would “very likely” face a lawsuit

By Allen Payton

During consideration of a proposed ordinance to require large grocery stores offer hazard pay of $3 to $5 more per hour, the Antioch City Council heard from both sides of the issue during their meeting on Tuesday night, April 13. Urgency Ord Lg Grocery Stores Temp Hazard Pay ACC041321

Ryan Guiling, an organizer of UFCW Local 5, spoke in favor of the hazard pay ordinance. “Our workers have been working tirelessly during this pandemic…to keep us fed. Early in the pandemic many of the stores were giving hazard pay as appreciation pay. But in June all stores ended it across the country. In the interim, grocery stores have been recording record profits.”

A California Retailers Association representative spoke next saying “we respectively request you vote no. This ordinance doesn’t take into consideration COVID-19 cases are rapidly decreasing. That we haven’t done our part is not reality. The grocery business operates on razor-thin margins.”

He spoke of increased costs over the past year “due to higher PPE costs and hazard pay to employees. Premium pay will add $400 in annual costs to families. Decisions should not be made at the local level, but in Sacramento or Washington.”

Barbanica asked to hear from the city’s Economic Development Director Kwame Reed on the matter.

“My thoughts are purely, we should do additional research…before we form an opinion on this,” Reed responded.  “I was hired to bring in jobs and companies. This could be seen as working against those efforts. It would be good to come back with some facts on this item.”

“As of right now, if we look at our database for current business licenses…we have just over 30 businesses that identify themselves as food businesses. That includes a 7-11’s, a donut shop,” he continued. “Stores that would qualify would be the Food Maxx, Lucky’s, Raley’s, SaveMart.”

“I very much appreciate the grocery workers who have been there for us,” said District 2 Councilman Mike Barbanica who shared he had been a grocery store worker in the past. “I don’t think a city should get into determining what a private industry should do. Our attorney has said we’re headed for a lawsuit.”

“There are two grocery stores named that paid their workers appreciation pay. SaveMart has done it and hasn’t had going out of business sales,” Mayor Pro Tem Monica Wilson said. “Can you tell us the gross sales of grocery stores in our city?”

“I cannot tell you that, tonight. I would have to come back with that,” Reed said.

“I want to echo what members of the public said,” Wilson continued. “In the beginning we were calling these people heroes. They were showing up every day of the pandemic. They had to deal with people who didn’t want to wear a mask. These people who made sure our families were fed need to be acknowledged.”

District 1 Councilwoman Tamisha Torres-Walker, who proposed the idea, said, “the most dangerous place to be, right now is grocery stores. I don’t have to be there every day…run in grab something without getting sick or coughed on by someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask. It says for a specific period of time. So, I do have questions. Appreciation pay was offered for a period of time. I don’t like giving people raises and then taking it away. Because it’s time bound…and it’s to help our most valued workers, right now, other than public safety workers. Capital over people is not important. We do have to put our people, first.”

“What is the potential impact to jobs…how many jobs are we talking about between these large, corporate grocery stores? Are all these workers Antioch residents…who could add to our local economy?” she asked.

“We would likely have to call each of those stores, because they’re not obligated to tell us how many employees they have or if they live in Antioch,” Reed responded. “That’s the type of research we’re going to have to do.”

“Are Walmart and Costco not considered grocery stores?” Ogorchock asked.

“No. You will see that club stores like Costco would be excluded,” City Attorney Thomas Smith responded.

“You would have to determine if you want them included,” Reed explained.

“They ultimately decided not to include them in Concord,” Smith added.

“I know that Cal Cities took a look at this and chose not to pursue it,” Ogorchock said. “This is a slippery slope for us to get into and I don’t think this is something we should get into.”

“Other cities have done it for shorter,” Reed added.

“It may stop other stores from coming in. But it could stop other shops, when we as a council are getting into their business,” Ogorchock pointed out.

“Those are additional complications and additional lawsuits,” Smith stated.

“There are a lot of people who think we shouldn’t be doing a lot,” Torres-Walker said. “We shouldn’t be doing anything with rent protections during the pandemic, as well. But we moved forward, even though it wasn’t your business to do. Then the county followed up and added more protections. Just because it isn’t something you haven’t done in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, now. We need to continue to look at protections for renters and workers during this pandemic. When this comes back, I hope the council has the heart to move this forward.”

Thorpe then said, “it looks like there are two folks who support it and two folks who don’t.”

“We did things during COVID-19 that were temporary because of things we were facing,” he continued. “We did take the step on convictions and we heard the concerns, there. There will always be concerns. This could create all these horrible things. But we don’t know that.”

“I haven’t been to my office in over a year,” Thorpe continued. “But every time I went to the grocery store I saw workers working their butts off. From my perspective we move forward with the ordinance…include Target, Walmart and Costco. From my perspective, if we look at the revenue these places are bringing in, they were doing fine during the pandemic. I find it insulting when people call it ‘premium pay’. This is hazard pay because people either decided, or didn’t have the choice, to keep working.”

“We won’t single out stores, but we will include language that will capture those stores,” Smith said.

“We can add Lowe’s and I favor the $5 pay,” Thorpe said.

“Lowe’s?” asked Smith.

“I’ve seen ordinances that have a grocery component in there,” Reed said.

“Oh, OK,” Thorpe responded.

Smith and Reed then got into a bit of a tug-of-war over who would include what language in a proposed ordinance.

“I’m the attorney,” Smith said.

“You look at from a legal standpoint and I’ll look at it from an economic development standpoint,” Reed responded.

“I’m the mayor,” Thorpe said, ending the discussion between the two city department heads.

City staff will return with an ordinance at a future council meeting for adoption.

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