The Washington Post
Calif. city taps stimulus funds to give grocery workers hazard pay bonuses
A city in Southern California is using stimulus money to get hazard pay bonuses into the pockets of essential workers.
In Oxnard, a city of about 208,000 northwest of Los Angeles, the city council unanimously approved a measure last week to give anyone who worked at least three months in a grocery store or pharmacy during the first 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic a $1,000 bonus.
City officials and labor leaders said the program in the city was the first of its kind in the country. The measure would use $2.5 million in stimulus money allocated to the city by the American Rescue Plan, which Democrats in Congress passed, and President Biden signed, in March.
“We worked through the whole pandemic. We got up every day and came into work. A lot of us never called out sick — we put ourselves on the line,” said Lucy Gilbertson, a clerk at a Von’s grocery store in Oxnard. “This is showing the gratitude for what we did through the pandemic.”
The measure makes Oxnard the latest city on the West Coast to institute hazard pay for essential workers, after companies canceled the benefit early in the pandemic.
Cities such as Long Beach and Oakland in California and Seattle passed mandates that companies reinstate a hazard bonus for frontline workers, usually about $4 to $5 an hour extra, following a spike in coronavirus cases and outcry from worker advocates and unions. Those measures drew sharp pushback from business groups and grocery chains like Kroger, which closed some stores in response.
In March, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by grocery industry groups against the city of Seattle over the ordinance.
Oxnard council members had explored those types of mandates but decided to use federal funds once they realized there was a mechanism in the stimulus law for doing such a thing, according to a council member, Bryan MacDonald.
Oxnard’s decision avoids the confrontations between grocery store companies and officials that have taken place in other cities. It will also be quicker to institute and reach more workers, like those in smaller stores, officials said.
“This was a good alternative to reach many more people, because had we done an ordinance, we probably would have looked at doing some of these chain retail stores that have at least 200 employees,” said Vianey Lopez, the council member who proposed the measure.
The proposal also drew the support of Macdonald, the lone Republican on the city council, who said he heard from grocery companies that they did not have issues with it.
“If we’re going to use federal money that they’re giving to us to restart programs and the economy, or say thank you to the frontline workers, because grocery stores can’t just close and leave people hungry — philosophically, I am okay with that,” he said.
Lopez said city officials had not determined yet how Oxnard would disburse the bonuses.
Kroger did not respond to a request for comment.
Labor leaders have hailed the effort, estimating at least 750 workers in Oxnard would be eligible for the bonus. They are pushing for other cities to follow the model, as well.
“Essential workers in grocery stores and pharmacies have bravely put their health at risk daily throughout the pandemic to ensure our families have the food, essential supplies, and vaccine access we need,” said Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, in a statement. “The UFCW is urging all governors and local leaders in all 50 states to follow Oxnard’s lead by ensuring this state pandemic aid is used to provide covid premium pay and recognize the extraordinary sacrifices made by those on the front lines.”
Becky Ayala, who is employed by Von’s grocery as a barista at an in-house Starbucks, said the money was a welcome bonus after the constant pressures of the past year. Ayala’s paycheck supports her 73-year-old brother, who has cancer, her daughter and a granddaughter. Ayala had been terrified of bringing home the virus to her brother. She never got covid-19 but said she saw many workers become ill.
She said she would use the money to help pay for her brother’s medical treatments and catch up on other household expenses.
“Everybody has been through different things, with different financial burdens,” she said. “They all acquired different debts, different things like that. Bills that have acquired — mine is basically rent and being behind on other bills.”
Although she and her family are vaccinated, she does not feel like the virus is a distant threat yet.
“We still have to worry about it,” she said. “To protect everyone else, when I come home, I will still take extra precautions.”