People who work at large grocery stores and pharmacies in unincorporated parts of Santa Clara County will soon be eligible to receive an additional $5 per hour as part of a new mandate from the Santa Clara County Supervisors.
The supervisors on March 9 officially adopted an emergency ordinance to mandate that essential workers at grocery stores and pharmacies be paid an additional $5 per hour to compensate for the additional health risks they have incurred as a result of doing their jobs during the pandemic. Their initial vote to approve the ordinance on Feb. 23 was 4-0-1 in favor, with Supervisor Mike Wasserman recused because of his financial interests in McDonald's and Walmart.
The ordinance is set to take effect 30 days from March 9 and remain in effect for 180 days or until the end of the local health ordinance declared because of the pandemic – whichever comes first.
It applies only to unincorporated areas within the county, and affects only drugstores or grocery stories that have 15 employees in unincorporated areas, or are franchised and have at least 10 locations statewide, or 300 or more employees throughout the U.S.
The new ordinance does not meet the requirements the county would need to enact the policy in cities countywide, only in unincorporated areas, said board Vice President Susan Ellenberg.
And it wasn't immediately clear how many businesses in unincorporated Santa Clara County were expected to be impacted by the board's ordinance.
However, Ellenberg encouraged county counsel to share the legislation with cities in the county that may be interested in passing similar ordinances, which they agreed to do.
Singling out grocery stores and pharmacies is not special interest legislation, as some opponents have argued, she said, but a small step to help people.
"It's an incremental step to remedy some harm, and just because we can't do everything all at once doesn't mean we should not try to do anything," she said.
An initial version of the ordinance that the board discussed in February included restaurant workers to receive the $5 per hour increase in pay. However, the board ultimately decided to omit them.
Unlike grocery stores and pharmacies, many restaurants have been subject to widespread shutdowns and pandemic-related restrictions, and have suffered significant economic losses as a result of government-imposed restrictions, noted Supervisor Joe Simitian, who proposed removing restaurants from the ordinance.
None of the similar ordinances in other communities he'd reviewed included restaurants, he said. "That's not to say that makes it right or wrong, but I thought it was a telling indicator," Simitian said.
Plus, convincing the cities within the county to also include restaurants in their individual ordinances would likely be a problem. "I know my communities well, and I think restaurants is a bridge too far," he said.
Critics of the ordinance included the California Grocers Association, which wrote a letter in opposition.
"The ordinance fails to recognize the current efforts grocers are making to support their employees and requires grocers add significant costs on to existing employee benefit programs," the letter states.
In a report the association provided to the county, it stated that the net profit margin for the grocery business is generally around 1.4%, and, while net profits rose to 2.2% in the middle of 2020, "there is little financial room to absorb a major wage increase," the report said. It argued that if grocers are forced to pay workers more, they would need to raise prices and pass those increases on to customers, or cut operating costs by reducing jobs or hours worked.
Supporters of the ordinance insisted that essential workers at grocery stores and pharmacies have continued to take on serious health risks during the pandemic by simply doing their jobs, which often are not highly compensated. One study published in October in the Occupation and Environmental Medicine journal, found that 21 of 104 workers in a Boston grocery store tested positive for COVID-19, and that those who were directly exposed to customers were five times more likely to test positive for the virus.
The Latina Coalition Board of Directors encouraged the supervisors to pass the ordinance so that workers "can share in some semblance of stability that we feel when we seamlessly bring home our bags of groceries to feed our families."
Santa Clara County is the latest of a number of jurisdictions to consider such legislation.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors recently considered a similar $5 per hour hazard pay ordinance for some grocery and pharmacy workers in unincorporated county areas, but sent the proposal back to be reviewed by equity experts after it became clear that the ordinance would only affect two Latino-owned grocery stores in North Fair Oaks.