Berkeley unanimously approves $5-per-hour hazard pay for grocery store workers

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance to guarantee an additional $5-per-hour hazard pay for grocery store workers during the pandemic. The ordinance applies to companies with 300 or more employees. The pay raise will go into effect immediately and remain until the city enters the yellow tier in the state’s COVID-19 risk assessment scale or after 120 days.

The City Council first considered the hazard pay proposal when council members Terry Taplin, Rigel Robinson and Ben Bartlett, along with Mayor Jesse Arreguín, introduced it at the Jan. 19 council meeting. At the time, council members decided to have the city manager and city attorney review the ordinance before enacting hazard pay into law; council members have since read over the review. On Tuesday evening, Taplin introduced the urgency item on the dais and council members voted it onto the agenda for final consideration.

Berkeley will join a few other Bay Area cities that have enacted similar hazard pay measures. In early February, the Oakland City Council voted to give an extra $5-per-hour pay for workers in grocery stores with a minimum of 300 workers or that are 15,000 square feet or larger. Oakland was soon followed by San Jose, which narrowly approved a $3 per hour raise, and San Leandro, which approved a $5-per-hour increase. And last night, on the same evening that Berkeley City Council passed its law, Santa Clara County also approved a hazard pay ordinance that would temporarily increase wages for large grocery store and pharmacy workers in unincorporated areas of the county.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Taplin clarified and stressed that the raise will have a significant impact on hourly workers. (The new legislation won’t apply to managerial staff or stores that already have hazard pay.) “It’s one thing to go outside and clap for essential workers, another to back it up with legislation that supports them,” Taplin said.

One of those workers who will see the benefits from the new law is John Gomez, a grocery store worker who spoke at the meeting to advocate for the $5-per-hour raise, which he said would provide a monetary cushion for workers who put themselves at risk of exposure to COVID-19 every day that they’re in the stores. “We come across anti-maskers, we get coughed at, spit at, cussed at… we get sick and some of us have died,” he said.

While Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani voted to approve hazard pay, she did express concern for unintended consequences that could affect Berkeley residents. Pointing to a $2 “Berkeley fee” that third-party delivery companies are now charging customers in response to the city’s delivery fee cap, Kesarwani said, “I’m a little fearful that the grocery stores could pass on some or all of these costs to consumers, but it’s important to try this.”

“If corporations are deciding to punish customers [by gouging prices]… because they’re being asked to pay their workers fairly to offset the risk of being on the front lines of a global pandemic… then that reflects more on their ethics,” Taplin said in a follow-up phone conversation with Berkeleyside. “I would imagine that grocers would want to protect their workers.”

Whole Foods and other large grocery stores with 300+ workers in Berkeley will be required to pay workers an extra $5-per-hour while the city is in the yellow tier in the state’s COVID-19 risk assessment scale. Photo: Emilie Raguso

This story was updated to clarify the duration that large grocery stores will be required to give employees hazard pay.