City of Berkeley must support all essential workers equally

CITY AFFAIRS: Hazard pay for some workers but not others is puzzling, unfair

Illustration of a grocery store cashier with money on a conveyor belt moving towards them
Jericho Tang/Staff

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In an attempt to honor employees denied the appreciation they deserve during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have referred to essential workers as heroes.

Celebrating workers who have made immeasurable sacrifices to serve their communities is important. But if not backed by tangible support, this celebration amounts to mere lip service, taking for granted the personal risk essential jobs involve.

This week, following the lead of other cities in California, Berkeley City Council took a step toward properly compensating some essential workers, calling for an ordinance that would require large grocery stores to provide $5 per hour in hazard pay to their employees.

This comes as good news to many. After pay was raised for some essential workers at the start of the pandemic, some businesses have since reverted to pre-pandemic wages despite continued health risks. Grocery store workers in particular face heightened exposure to COVID-19, with infection rates thought to be as high as 20%.

Still, one is left to wonder why the City Council is choosing to grant hazard pay to just one group of essential workers when essential workers in all industries encounter many of the same risks. This is not to say grocery store employees are undeserving of hazard pay, but that many others are deserving, too. 

The referral from the City Council creates far more questions than it answers. 

For example, what about high-risk stores too small to qualify under the ordinance or else unable to afford increased wages for their employees? Should the city government step in to foot the bill? Will grocery store workers also receive retroactive hazard pay for the months they worked without it? And why shouldn’t employees working in high-risk businesses outside the food industry receive hazard pay? After all, it isn’t only grocery stores that have seen profits during the pandemic.

Without answering these questions — and without extending fair support to all essential workers in Berkeley — City Council’s approval of hazard pay for grocery workers does not seem like a true effort to supply a living wage to all those who need and deserve it.

Nevertheless, if the ordinance is approved, it should be implemented swiftly. Grocery workers have been working in hazardous conditions for months and the last thing they need is for potential pay to remain caught up in bureaucratic deliberations.

As we’ve witnessed throughout the pandemic, cities and counties can also bounce unexpectedly through reopenings and lockdowns, making hazard pay — or any pandemic support — based on COVID-19 “tiers” futile. City Council must ensure that the pay it promises will continue until risk has diminished permanently.

While well-intentioned and valuable to some, this ordinance is not helpful to most essential workers in the city. Officials must redouble efforts to support all those who continue to make great sacrifices for the Berkeley community.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.