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Grocers fight "hero pay" mandates for frontline workers

Grocery stores closing over "hazard pay"
Kroger to close 2 Southern California supermarkets to avoid extra pay for workers 01:12

The grocery industry is taking a handful of West Coast cities to court over recently passed local measures requiring major supermarket chains to pay frontline workers more money for toiling amongst the public amid a deadly pandemic.

The legal battles come as some municipalities have looked to step in after "hazard pay" for many grocery workers lapsed, even as they continue to face risk on the job. At least 134 grocery workers have died of COVID-19, and more than 28,700 have been exposed to a positive case, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Seattle's new law mandating $4-an-hour increases for employees of large grocery chains has the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association battling the city to court. The federal suits filed this week contend the ordinance disrupts the collective-bargaining between grocery chains and unions, and singles out large companies, according to The Seattle Times.

"Unfortunately, the council's unprecedented ordinance, its unilateral action, and unwillingness to work with the grocery industry has left us with no other option than to file a lawsuit against the city," Tammie Hetrick, president and CEO of WFIA, said in a statement regarding the law that passed last week and took effect Wednesday. The ordinance applies to grocers with more than 500 employees overall and stays in effect so long as the public health crisis continues. 

A spokesperson for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, Dan Nolte, said, "We will absolutely defend the City's right to see essential grocery workers receive the hazard pay they so rightly deserve."

Similar fights are also taking place in California, where the California Grocers Association is also active on the legal front.

The statewide trade group has filed federal suits against the cities of Oakland and Montebello after both approved ordinances mandating an extra five bucks an hour for workers of large grocery chains. It's also challenging a $4-an-hour wage hike for employees of large supermarket chains in Long Beach, California, and threatening action against Los Angeles as it, too, moves forward with its own hazard pay ordinance. 

Lifelines in the Lockdown 26:28

Trader Joe's responded to the recent events by temporarily upping pay by $4 an hour for its workers nationwide but cancelling its traditional midyear raises. 

Kroger took a different and even more controversial tact, saying it would close two stores in Long Beach after that city passed a $4-an-hour wage hike for employees of large supermarket chains. Kroger, the nation's biggest supermarket company, also warned more closures could come.

Research has found frontline employees confront a higher risk of coronavirus exposure on the job. Such workers are also more likely to be Black, Hispanic or Native American, populations that have suffered higher rates of COVID-19.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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