Santa Clara County approves scaled back hazard pay plan
The San Jose City Council will order large grocery stores to pay works an additional $3 an hour. File photo.

After intense backlash from business groups, Santa Clara County lawmakers are scaling back a plan to give low-wage workers a pay bump for risking their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal is called hazard pay and it offers frontline employees a pay bump for working during the pandemic. San Jose approved a plan earlier this month to give grocery workers an extra $3 per hour for 120 days.

Santa Clara County, which often leads on such progressive policies, limited the policy Tuesday to apply only to grocery store and pharmacy workers in unincorporated parts of the county. The original plan discussed in January would have applied to every city in Santa Clara County and covered restaurant employees.

The bump in pay will be $5 for 180 days, which remains unchanged from the initial proposal.

The Board of Supervisors adopted the policy in a 4-1 vote. Board President Mike Wasserman abstained from voting because of his financial interest in McDonald’s.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg expressed disappointment with the reduced scope of the ordinance. Still, she hopes it becomes a model for other cities to pass their own ordinances.

“Contrary to the argument of some opponents, this is not special interest legislation,” Ellenberg said. “The fact that this ordinance only addresses (certain businesses and workers) … but not all workers is not a reason to be concerned about motives. It is an incremental step to reduce some harm.”

The $5 pay increase is for employees of companies with at least 300 employees nationwide and more than 15 employees in unincorporated Santa Clara County. It also applies to franchisees with more than 10 establishments in the state.

The hazard pay will remain in effect for 180 days, or until the county COVID-19 public health emergency is terminated, whichever occurs first.

Shortly after the first version of the mandate was released, the Silicon Valley Chamber Coalition, a group of 18 local Chambers of Commerce, launched a campaign against it. The coalition argued the policy would make food insecurity worse and result in the loss of thousands of service jobs during the pandemic.

The Silicon Valley Organization, the area’s largest chamber of commerce, celebrated the county’s concessions in a Feb. 18 newsletter to members.

“The COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders have widened inequality in our community and we must do everything we can to protect local jobs and provide economic security for our underserved communities,” the newsletter stated.

The organization noted that the new version of the county ordinance was almost powerless: “This means that the ordinance would have almost zero impact on businesses and workers in our community,” the newsletter said.

The California Chamber of Commerce and the California Grocers Association also drafted strong letters of opposition to supervisors.

“Unfortunately, the (ordinance) would mandate grocery stores provide additional pay beyond what is economically feasible, which would severely impact store viability and result in increased prices for groceries, limited operating hours, reduced hours for workers, fewer workers per store and most concerning, possible store closures,” wrote Tim James of the grocers association.

A study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine last year indicated retail workers, including grocery store employees who had frequent contact with customers, were five times more likely to contract for COVID-19.

“It’s sad that it has taken almost a year for this to get implemented. It’s long overdue,” said a resident named Charlotte. “The function of civilization and of government should be to protect people and the environment. It should not be to protect business interests, wealth or profit … (This is) frankly one of the smallest gestures we could possibly do for those putting their lives on the line every day.”

The San Jose City Council formalized its hazard pay ordinance in a 10-1 vote Tuesday, which applies to stores that have more than 300 employees nationwide.

Councilmember Dev Davis was the lone dissenter and previously voted against the pay increase, fearing unintended consequences on businesses, staff hours and food prices.

The ordinance in San Jose becomes active in 30 days. Santa Clara County’s new policy also goes into effect in 30 days.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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