Hazard pay not offered to grocery employees despite COVID-19 case surge

photo of a Trader Joe's grocery store
Anthony Angel Pérez/Staff
In February, Berkeley City Council passed legislation guaranteeing $5 per hour in hazard pay. However, certain grocery store chains have not provided hazard pay to their workers.

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Despite the surge of COVID-19 cases, large grocery store chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have not offered their employees adequate hazard pay.

Hazard pay refers to paying more to employees for performing more dangerous, hazardous work, according to Catherine Fisk, Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law. At the beginning of the pandemic, hazard pay was successfully leveraged by many union workers as employers considered factors such as labor shortage, risk acknowledgment and encouraging employees to continue working.

“Grocery work is not well paid (especially in non-union companies) and so hazard pay ordinances were a way to acknowledge that low-wage workers, many who are not white, faced hazards working in the pandemic and were not being compensated well,” Fisk said in an email.

Now, with regions in the Bay Area such as Alameda County facing increasing cases in light of the delta variant’s spread in California, workers believe this increased risk is not met with satisfactory hazard pay. According to Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW Local 5, a Bay Area labor union representing 30,000 workers, most employees have not received hazard pay since June 2020.

The impact of this on grocery store employees has been significant. Araby explained how many of these employees have begun to seek other work because of the inadequate support provided by their employers. 

The low wages have resulted in“great stress” and ultimately contributed to overall labor shortage, Araby added.

“People have decided enough is enough,” Araby said. “The risks aren’t worth the reward, which means we should increase the wages. People are making the choice to not work or find other jobs. They don’t wanna work under these current conditions.”

While hazard pay has not been introduced by large grocery store chains, Araby said the dynamics of the pandemic are dissimilar to those of last year due to the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.

Vaccinations have been helpful in protecting workers, and because of this, UFCW-5 has stopped pushing for hazard pay in the pandemic’s newest wave because they believe workers must first take action to get vaccinated before asking for financial assistance from the Berkeley City Council or grocery store outlets.

Thus, the aim within UFCW-5 to get employees vaccinated has been the utmost priority. According to Araby, the vaccination rate of those in UFCW-5 is representative of the rates in the Bay Area, around average or below average.

While the union doesn’t ask about vaccination status, it is trying to convince as many employees as possible to get vaccinated.

“I think it would be irresponsible of us to ask cities to pass hazard pay without convincing workers to prevent the risk of hazard by getting vaccinated instead,” Araby said. “They should get paid for their risk, but there is a personal responsibility to get vaccinated first.”

The heightened discussion about hazard pay has revealed deeper implications regarding overall wage pay for grocery store workers.

Araby said there must be change in all parts of the community in order for grocery store workers to receive proper treatment. He said larger grocery store chains must pay their workers more, City Council should support health and safety laws and the general public should give the grocery store workers the respect they deserve.

“Outside of hazard pay we should negotiate also just higher wages in general,” Araby said. “When the pandemic first started, all of a sudden we were banging pots and pans for nurses and essential workers. What changed? They were still essential workers before the pandemic.”

Contact Ashley Tsai at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @ashleyttsai.