Sunday, April 18, 2021
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Grocery Workers are Frontline Workers

LA City’s most recent authorization of a “hero pay” increase for grocery workers has been long overdue, especially considering the health risks that grocery workers go through every time they have a shift. 

This week, the LA City Council voted 14-1 to increase grocery and drugstore workers’ salaries to an extra $5 an hour. It went into effect on Friday, Feb. 26, and will last for at least 120 days. 

LA is only the latest municipality to pass this mandate. Other cities such as Seattle, Oakland, San Jose and Long Beach have already added this boost to their workers’ pay. However, the situation’s not looking great because as each city implements the mandate, the California Grocers Association (GCA) continues to file lawsuits against the cities. Due to this backlash, the tension continues building as the Albertson’s company cut non-union workers in order to transition to operations such as Doordash for their inhouse deliveries and as workers go on strike across the US. 

Yet, even now, this increase in pay has been prolonged for far too long, especially for Los Angeles, considering it’s the county with the most known cases and deaths caused by COVID-19 in California. Although it’s only the 11th largest county in the state by land area, it has the largest population of almost 10 million. 

Given our current state of emergency, it’s no surprise that grocery sales are surging during this time. Company profits in 2020 compared to 2019 showed an increase of 40%, creating an extra $16.7 billion. The stock prices also increased an average of 33%. However, their employees barely benefitted from this situation. Instead, they were working with high health risks while companies “raised their pay … by an average of just $1.11 per hour.” 

This is unacceptable considering how dangerous working at the grocery store can actually be during a state of national crisis. We often overlook these employees and forget them in the list of frontline workers. Within their job, there are several “potential sources of exposures [including] close contact for prolonged periods of time with a customer with COVID-19” or merchandise they’ve touched. As customers, we’re already nervous to go to markets. However, for grocery employees, despite the extra sanitation and mask mandate, their risk to exposure is still much greater than ours due to their job responsibilities such as having to restock, engage with customers, and handle money.

The lack of continuous hazard pay during this time is an example of how our federal government, state, and county fail to support low-wage workers. This is not just large companies not properly compensating their workers during these times of hardships, but policy and structural failures that do not adequately treat low-wage workers. At a time when many have more financial burdens and stress of contracting COVID-19, it’s important that jobs without a living wage standard are supported. 

However, now that LA is mandating this increase in pay, some people fear that the stores might respond by closing off or laying off workers, which two Kroger stores in Long Beach have already used as an excuse to shut down. Kroger is one of the companies that had around a 90% profit increase but had only a 9% wage raise. 

It’s outrageous how corporations are profiting so much during the pandemic, yet cannot pay it forward to the employees that keep their stores open. These jobs already normally have a minimum wage of only $13-14 despite the living wage for a single adult in California being $18.57. It’s extremely stressful, if not nearly impossible, for people with children or other adults in the household to live off such wages.

It’s important that our states and government are held accountable for how they treat their citizens. There should be federal funding for hazard pay, especially towards low-wage essential workers. However, in the long run, it’s the minimum wage that needs to be higher and the work policies that need to do better in supporting workers. 

With so many people being affected by COVID-19, it’s crucial to remember: be grateful and show our appreciation to all of our frontline workers who are risking their lives not only for the safety or convenience of others but also because these sacrifices are the only ways they can pay their bills and survive during this time. 

Fiona Liu is an Opinion Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at fional5@uci.edu