Stand back up: Local unions must continue to fight for hazard pay

Illustration of working in grocery store with covid
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

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While many are feeling safer from COVID-19 with vaccines readily available and restrictions largely lifted, going to work is still hazardous for essential grocery store employees. And yet, their pay no longer reflects these dangers. Even advocates who spoke out in their favor during earlier waves of the pandemic are no longer officially demanding that grocery store workers continue to receive hazard pay.

Large grocery store chains, which saw their profits rise during the last year of the pandemic, must offer adequate hazard pay. This includes local favorites such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, which are failing to do so. The Hazard Pay for Grocery Workers Ordinance, established by the city for Berkeley grocery store workers, lasted 120 days and ended June 23. As a result, most workers in Berkeley have not received pandemic-related hazard pay since early July. 

Berkeley has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases this past month, largely fueled by the particularly contagious delta variant. Grocery store employees are especially vulnerable to infection. Although the availability of vaccines has been touted as the finish line for this pandemic, they have proved partially ineffective in the face of the now dominant delta variant. 

Factors such as labor shortages and risk of infection were all used to support the establishment of required hazard pay. These are the same challenges that workers are facing today, and yet UFCW Local 5, a Bay Area labor union representing 30,000 workers, is no longer fighting for its workers to receive an increase in pay. 

According to Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW-5, it would be “irresponsible” to urge cities to pass hazard pay or ask for financial assistance from grocery stores if employees don’t first take “personal responsibility” for getting vaccinated. Instead, UFCW-5 is working to encourage vaccination for union members. 

While vaccinations have helped protect workers and UFCW-5’s efforts are necessary and commendable, they are not the only answer. Vaccinated employees aren’t working risk-free — breakthrough infections increase the dangers to individuals and the community. It may take more than a month to get fully vaccinated. Even if employees get vaccinated, they will still be working under hazardous conditions and be exposed to thousands of customers before those dangers can be mitigated by the vaccine. 

It’s also important to note that California COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave expires in just more than a month, making it harder for workers to leave work to get vaccinated. 

UFCW-5 and other local unions cannot simply sit back — they must campaign for hazard pay in addition to increased vaccination rates. However, it is grocery stores that must ultimately pay their workers for the risks during an ongoing pandemic.

Grocery store employees do not have the luxury of worrying about crowd sizes. They cannot simply leave if they are unsafe. Workers need to be regarded with the respect they deserve for helping keep our communities running, and this must be reflected in their pay.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2021 opinion editor, Emily Hom.