‘Step up for them’: Hazard pay for Berkeley grocery store workers passes

Image of woman shopping
Josh Kahen/File
City Council approved wage increases for grocery store workers in Berkeley, who will now receive an additional $5 of hazard pay per hour.

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Grocery store workers in Berkeley will now receive an additional $5 of hazard pay per hour after Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to pass an ordinance regarding the pay Tuesday.

The extra pay aims to compensate essential workers for the “clear and present dangers” of working in a public service setting during a pandemic, according to the ordinance. The mandatory hazard pay is set to last for 120 days or until Berkeley enters the yellow tier of COVID-19 risk.

“(I thought about) the kinds of risks our essential frontline workers are taking, showing up to work every day, and wanting to move beyond symbolic appreciation of our frontline workers and wanting to step up for them,” said Councilmember Terry Taplin, who introduced the ordinance. “I learned that other cities were also pursuing it, so I wanted Berkeley to join that movement.”

Berkeley became the latest of several Bay Area cities, including Oakland, San Jose and San Leandro, to approve wage increases for grocery store workers. The Berkeley ordinance applies to local stores with a minimum of 300 employees nationwide, and will exempt stores such as Trader Joe’s that already provide its workers added compensation, according to Councilmember Kate Harrison.

Grocery store workers are also shouldering extra tasks due to guidelines for sanitization and mask compliance, according to Nari Rhee, researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. Rhee said it is “high time” that essential workers are recognized for their efforts.

Labor costs average only about 10% of total operating costs for larger grocery chains, Rhee added, so stores should be able to absorb the pay rise without a corresponding increase in prices.

“If corporations, who are seeing record profits, are just going to punish consumers because they’re being asked to share those profits with those workers — with those workers who are risking their lives and the health of their family every day to keep everyone fed — that speaks more on their ethics,” Taplin said. “I would like to think that our grocers who want to be in Berkeley would share our values.”

Both Rhee and Taplin noted the importance of reaching out to workers and involving them in efforts to draft policies.

According to Taplin, the disruption caused by the pandemic has highlighted the way that society is “failing” vulnerable populations.

“The pandemic is making us all a little bit more aware of what kinds of work is important, valuable and essential,” Rhee said. “So it’s really turning out that all the kinds of jobs that we historically undervalued, especially in, for instance, the food sector, are turning out to be super important. And an important point that we want to keep considering past the pandemic is how we reward our essential workers.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.