Oakland city councilmembers voted unanimously Tuesday to force large grocery stores to raise some workers’ pay by $5 per hour.
The ordinance was passed as an emergency ordinance, so it takes effect immediately. It covers stores over 15,000 square feet in size and that have 500 or more employees nationwide.
An employee who is entitled to minimum wage and works either full or part-time qualifies for the pay increase.
“We are in an emergency,” said Councilmember Noel Gallo, who co-sponsored the ordinance with council President Nikki Fortunato Bas. Oakland has about 2,000 grocery workers and most are Black, Hispanic and/or women.
Workers some time ago approached Bas about drafting the ordinance. “I was really moved by their stories,” Bas said before the vote Tuesday afternoon.
She said that grocery workers have been working non-stop, indoors for the duration of the pandemic.
Workers told Bas they were scared because they cannot control whether customers stay six feet from them, among other risky behavior.
Bas said the extra pay will give workers an incentive to keep working and the extra money they may need if they must quarantine.
The California Grocers Association opposed the ordinance. Similar ordinances have passed in Los Angeles, Seattle and in Long Beach.
Two large food stores in Long Beach closed following the passage of an ordinance there, leaders of the association said.
“We just think it’s unfair, unprecedented and untimely,” Ron Fong, president and CEO of the association said in an interview.
Grocers don’t like that city councils are mandating what stores must pay their workers, Fong said.
Bas and other ordinance supporters say that grocery chains are making enormous profits, a claim Fong disputes. He said grocers saw an uptick in buying when the pandemic hit in March of last year, but since then volume has returned to normal.
“They can’t afford this,” Fong said.
Research by The Brookings Institution shows that 13 of the largest retail and grocery stores in the nation earned a combined $17.7 billion more in the first three quarters of 2020 than in 2019.
That is a 42 percent increase, the researchers found, adding that many of the top companies earned billions during and because of the pandemic and have passed little onto their workers.
One company in Oakland did raise worker pay. Lucky Supermarkets raised pay by $2 per hour, which means it would only have to raise wages by $3 more, according to the ordinance.
But Bas said because workers there are in a union, the store can get a waiver. Stores with workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement do not have to comply with the ordinance, Bas said.
The ordinance is temporary, sunsetting when Alameda County reaches the yellow tier, also known as the least restrictive tier, in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Several people spoke before the City Council in favor of the ordinance. “We really need to support our essential workers,” said Liz Suk, interim executive director of Oakland Rising, which educates and mobilizes voters in Oakland’s flatlands to pursue change.
Grocers in Oakland covered by the ordinance are Cardenas Markets, Foods Co., Lucky Supermarkets/Save Mart Supermarkets/FoodMaxx, Grocery Outlet, Safeway, Smart and Final, Sprouts Farmers Market, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market, according to a news release by Bas’s office. San Jose city councilmembers on Tuesday evening were considering an ordinance similar to Oakland’s.