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Santa Monica Faces Lawsuit If It Approves "Hero Pay"

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By Jorge Casuso

January 20, 2021 -- The California Grocers Association filed a lawsuit against the City of Long Beach Wednesday challenging a "hero pay" ordinance similar to the one being drafted in Santa Monica.

The ordinances -- which are also being considered for unincorporated areas of LA County and by the cities of Los Angeles and West Hollywood -- mandate large grocery and drug store chains to raise the pay of workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Association's lawsuit, filed less than one day after the Long Beach City Council took action Tuesday, claims the ordinance illegally singles out certain grocers, while ignoring other groups that employ essential frontline workers.

The ordinance also illegally "interferes with the collective-bargaining process" protected by the federal National Labor Relations Act, the Association claims.

“Firefighters, police officers, health care workers, as well as transportation, sanitation, and restaurant workers are essential, yet grocers are the only businesses being targeted for extra pay mandates," said Ron Fong, who heads the Association.

"We look forward to our day in court to contest the legality of this Ordinance.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the measure "invalid and unconstitutional."

It also seeks a preliminary injunction "to stop implementation of the law until a judge can rule on the merits of its lawsuit."

The emergency ordinance Santa Monica is drafting after a unanimous vote by the Council last Tuesday uses the proposed LA County measure as a model.

That measure mandates that publicly traded grocery and drug store companies or those with at least 300 employees nationwide pay workers $5 more per hour during the pandemic, compared to the $4 increase in Long Beach.

At last Tuesday's meeting, Councilmembers dismissed a warning by the Grocers Association that the mandated pay hikes would result in higher food prices and scaled-back hours for workers ("Hero Pay' Could Backfire, Grocery Industry Says," January 11, 2021).

Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who proposed the ordinance, said grocery stores "are making a bundle" during the pandemic, while Councilmember Gleam Davis noted a previous pay hike last spring "didn't lead to higher food prices."

Councilmember Phil Brock said local grocery stores were worried the proposed ordinance would have "severe impacts" and noted they pay workers $26 per hour in salary and benefits.

"I'm concerned about the amount" of the proposed increase, Brock said, before voting with the rest of the Council to draft the ordinance.

An editorial Tuesday in the LA Times opposed the mandated increases, noting they exclude most essential workers and warning they may be illegal.

Elected officials "have declared that they want to honor essential workers" by providing "hero pay," the Times Editorial Board wrote.

"But not all essential workers are heroes in eyes of local lawmakers, apparently, as the proposals would exclude the vast majority of front-line employees.

“Government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, or who deserves ‘hero pay’ and who doesn’t," the Times concluded. "The hazard pay proposals are not fair to all essential workers, and they may not be legal.”

Santa Monica City officials Wednesday said they are aware of the lawsuit filed against Long Beach.

"Staff will review and consider the arguments made in that lawsuit in formulating their upcoming recommendation to the Council regarding any similar mandate in Santa Monica," the City said in a statement to The Lookout.

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