Photo by Kit Karzen.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called on essential workers in grocery and drug stores to earn an additional $5 per hour in “hero pay” for the dangers they face amid the coronavirus pandemic recently and some Santa Monica City Councilmembers want to discuss a similar idea this Tuesday.

County supervisors discussed their hero pay proposal earlier this week when they shared how it would require national grocery and drug retailers, operating in unincorporated areas of the county, to provide a pay bump for front-line workers. Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell introduced the proposal and said immediate action is necessary when one considers local infection rates and what workers have sacrificed while serving the public.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, frontline grocery and drug retail workers have continued to show up to work despite the dangers of being exposed to COVID-19,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “Because of their work on the frontlines, families throughout the county have been able to access food and medicine they need during this pandemic.”

Given the nature of these jobs, grocery workers typically stay inside with large crowds every day, which puts them at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, Solis added as she detailed how some retailers have experienced outbreaks while they handle a surge in demand during the pandemic.

“The companies themselves are thriving, while their workers who keep the stores open are struggling economically,” Solis said, sharing that nearly half of low wage workers have reported having trouble paying their bills. “It’s imperative for the county to act with urgency to ensure these workers are justly compensated for the unprecedented risks they encounter on the job during the pandemic,” which is why grocery and drug retail stores with 300 or more employees nationwide and more than 10 employees per store site will have to provide all employees with hero pay.

The Hero Pay ordinance calls for an additional $5 per hour in wages and the temporary urgency ordinance will come back for a vote on January 26th. And while Solis knows these actions do not totally negate the economic pain caused by COVID-19, “it is my hope they bring relief to our residents,” she said.

During its discussions this week, supervisors noted that the ordinance may not apply in incorporated L.A. County cities because of the county’s jurisdictional limitations. So in order to make the hero pay ordinance consistent across the region, cities will be required to take action.

“And I’m preparing Santa Monica to be able to participate,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said Friday when he discussed why he asked for the item to be placed on an upcoming meeting’s agenda.

“Even as I prudently shelter at home, I must make necessary trips to grocery stores and pharmacies. With every such visit, I’m reminded that market and drugstore employees are risking their health and their families to make sure Santa Monicans stay fed and healthy,” McKeown said. “Frontline employees got bonus pay for accepting the obvious health risks back when the pandemic began, but that ended after the first spike in May. Now, the out of control transmission of COVID makes their work riskier than ever,” and — don’t forget — these are low-wage workers who are already hard-hit by the pandemic economy. But assuming “hero pay” temporarily will give both financial relief and grateful acknowledgment of their crucial service to local residents and their families.

McKeown added he worded his motion to be consistent with any such measures imposed in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County because consistency will be important.

“The ordinance returning to the County Supes on the 26th may be even more specific, but so far the direction given Tuesday applies to companies that are large enough to be publicly traded or have at least 300 employees nationwide and more than ten employees per store. These are big employers,” McKeown noted. “Under the County proposal as submitted so far, the big employers would absorb the cost,” and Tuesday’s motion, if successful, means that when a final emergency ordinance is enacted by the county, Santa Monica will already have approval to move forward in conjunction with its peers.