Grocery store workers still without hazard pay despite delta variant

photo of Whole Foods Market
Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff
Many grocery store employees have not received COVID-19 hazard pay since June, when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, and continue to face health risks working during the pandemic as the delta variant continues to spread.

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Since June, most employees of large grocery store chains in Berkeley have not received hazard pay as compensation for COVID-19 pandemic-related risks.

Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín said he supports reinstituting hazard pay and added that he and Berkeley City Councilmember Terry Taplin are working on introducing a new hazard pay policy for grocery workers.

“We are not out of the pandemic and essential grocery workers are still showing up to work every day putting themselves at risk,” Arreguín said in an email. “They should be compensated for the risk they face at work, keeping our economy going and making sure we are fed.”

In February, Berkeley City Council enacted the Hazard Pay for Grocery Workers Ordinance, guaranteeing a $5 dollar per hour hazard pay rate for employees of large grocery stores.

Campus sophomore Nicole Aguilera worked at Whole Foods from March through August. Aguilera noted that she received hazard pay for a portion of her time working at the store and that when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in June, hazard pay ended.

She added that employees stopped receiving hazard pay despite the spread of the delta variant.

At the start of the pandemic, many union grocery store employees were able to secure hazard pay from their employers. United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW, Local 5, a Bay Area union representing 30,000 workers, was one group involved in the push for hazard pay.

“Hazard pay was not given but fought for throughout the Bay Area after stores refused to give it,” said Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW Local 5, in an email. “Cities across the bay and state passed ordinances because workers faced hazards without any mitigation in grocery stores.”

According to UFCW Local 5, more than 1,000 of its members have contracted COVID-19.

When the mask mandate was lifted along with other statewide restrictions in June, Aguilera said she noticed customers becoming more comfortable entering the store without a mask.

She added that once the delta variant began to spread and the mandate returned, she noticed more customers resisting to comply with it.

Aguilera said that at her store, it was difficult to take time off for any reason, including sick days, due to understaffing at certain times, which created stress for her and her coworkers.

With a move towards a “new normal” Aguilera said that hazard pay is the least that could be done for essential workers during the pandemic.

“I see this as extremely unfair considering the ongoing circumstances of the pandemic,” Aguilera said in an email. “These employees are still going in every day for about minimum wage, constantly exposed to dozens of different people at all times, all to ensure that the shelves are stocked with food and produce for us.”

Many grocery store employees must use up paid sick days or lose pay in order to quarantine or isolate during the pandemic, according to UFCW Local 5.

However, Araby noted that due to the availability of vaccines, the threat of COVID-19 infection for grocery store workers is lessened.

City Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she also supports grocery store workers receiving hazard pay.

“Grocery store workers through the height of the pandemic have put their own health at risk and been vital lifelines for our community,” Hahn said in an email. “Even as our city reaches record high vaccination rates these frontline workers still face higher risk and deserve hazard pay.”

Moving forward, Araby said that customers should take care to be respectful to grocery workers, advocate for them and avoid nonunion companies.

Contact Emma Taila at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @emmataila