The San Jose City Council today plans to vote on a proposal that would require large corporate grocery stores, chain supermarkets and retail stores that sell food products to pay employees an additional $5 per hour.
If passed, the ordinance introduced by Councilman Sergio Jimenez would be implemented immediately and expire when the county’s Covid-19 health order is lifted.
“Alongside doctors and nurses, retail food workers have served the residents of San Jose while taking on tremendous risks,” Jimenez said.
Retail workers, including grocery store employees, are five times more likely to test positive for Covid-19, according to a study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“Hazard pay is necessary to justly compensate retail food workers for the clear and present dangers of doing their jobs during the pandemic, ensure the welfare of workers, and continue stable operation of our much-needed food supply chain,” Jimenez added.
The extra pay would only apply to food suppliers with 300 or more employees nationwide. Corner stores, mom-and-pop shops and small ethnic markets would be exempt because they have already been disproportionally hit by Covid-19, Jimenez said.
In the early days of the pandemic, some grocery stores voluntarily instituted wage increases in the form of ‘Hero Pay” or “Appreciation Pay,” but many stopped.
However, those retailers that continued to provide additional wages to workers will receive a credit. That means if a grocer was paying employees an additional $2 per hour, they would chip in just $3 more to make up the $5.
Erik Larsen, a 53-year-old San Jose resident, started working at Lucky’s Supermarkets after losing his job at the start of the pandemic.
In a letter to the council, Larsen said the hazard pay was essential for him and his employees who are “critical in the food supply chain.”
“I put myself in harm’s way,” he wrote. “It’s really only a matter time that I'm exposed to Covid. Do I deserve more while big corporations are making money hand over fist on the back of my labor? Yes, I do.”
He noted that many customers skirted Covid-19 safety protocols, putting employees at a greater risk. Throughout the months he saw many coworkers “disappear,” because they got infected while management was “silent.”
“I realized this was no joke,” Larsen wrote.
He concluded his missive with a question for the City Council: “What is my labor worth?”
The hazard pay plan was introduced last week at a Rules and Open Government Committee, which it cleared with a 4-1 vote. Councilwoman Dev Davis, the subcommittee member who dissented, said she worried that grocers would increase their prices to account for the hazard pay, forcing residents to foot the bill instead.
But Jimenez, along with council members Sylvia Arenas, David Cohen and Raul Peralez and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, emphasized how necessary the extra pay is, especially for those struggling to make up financial losses after contracting Covid-19.
A similar proposal was also introduced last week at the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meeting, where the five-member body voted to draft a “Hero Pay” ordinance that would raise some essential workers’ hourly wage by $5.
The additional pay would last for 180 days and apply to grocery and retail stores with 300 or more employees nationwide and companies that are publicly traded.
The motion passed 4-1, with Supervisor Mike Wasserman abstaining because of financial ties to McDonald's Corp., which would be affected by the change.
Supervisors will be presented with a “Hero Pay” draft at their Feb. 23 meeting.
San Jose council members could institute the hazard pay as soon as today.
“Let us remember that those workers who put their lives on the line to provide us with food and services do so out of need to care for themselves and their families,” Jimenez said. “This is our opportunity to demonstrate to them that we ... respect and appreciate their courage, and most importantly value their worth.”
San Jose’s elected leaders will discuss the hazard pay ordinance no later than 4pm at today’s virtual council session. Click here to tune in.