Gelson's cashier Roxana Catalan rings up a customer. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Citing the undue risk grocery workers have been exposed to during the pandemic and the undue profits some grocery chains have made, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 5 to 1 to require any grocery chain within city limits to pay its workers an additional $5 an hour for 60 days. For full-time workers that translates to $2,400.

The council’s vote also applies to retail workers employed by big pharmaceutical chains such as Rite Aid and CVS. Councilmembers were eager to exempt smaller operations such as Tri-County Produce and Santa Cruz Markets while sticking it to larger chains, which reported a 90 percent increase in profits during the first two quarters of the pandemic profit.

Councilmembers heard plenty before the meeting from representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770, from representatives of the California Grocers Association, and the California Retailers Association. The latter two argued the pay bump would erode into the industry’s “razor thin” profit margin, causing loss of jobs, an increase in prices —$400 a year for a family of four ​— ​or the outright closure of stores.

Union representatives pointed out that prices have not gone up even though 30 cities have enacted similar measures and that to date only two stores in California have been closed. “These workers were not expecting to be on the front lines of the pandemic,” argued Daniel Mora, of the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council.

The vote outcome was much more in doubt than the final vote suggested. Councilmembers Michael Jordan and Kristen Sneddon expressed real reservations about bestowing “hero” status upon certain retail workers and not others. What about nurses, Jordan asked? His daughter showers off outside with a hose before coming into the house when she gets off work. Jordan was the sole “no” vote.

Councilmember Meagan Harmon, who spearheaded the effort, pushed back, arguing it made no sense to do nothing for anyone just because the council couldn’t do something for everyone. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who co-sponsored the measure, added, “We have to be brave and help those who can’t really speak for themselves.”

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