Recently, when asked why we need heroes, Bill Gates, co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation, said the following: “Because they represent the best of who we can be. Their efforts to solve the world’s challenges demonstrate our values as a society and they serve as powerful examples of how to make a positive difference in the world. And if enough people hear about their actions, they can inspire others to do something heroic too. If there’s ever been a time that we need heroes, it’s now. The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented health and economic challenges, especially for the most vulnerable among us. The good news is that many people from all walks of life are doing their part to help them. Health care workers. Scientists. Firefighters. Grocery store workers. Aid workers. Vaccine trial participants. And ordinary citizens caring for their neighbors1.”
In so many ways, these folks, the “ordinary citizens” remain unsung heroes. Hard-working individuals who go unrecognized and who are often underpaid in consideration of the sacrifices they make. In fact, many of the country’s biggest grocery and retail employers who earned record profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, have all but ignored the frontline essential workers who have arguably risked the most; with the exception of hazard pay, which has mostly expired at this point or was applied with limited and stringent application2. Major news and media outlets, health organizations, and corporations have made an effort to put a spotlight on these folks, but the real story is what is being done to adequately compensate them for their tremendous contributions.
Earlier this year, supported by the efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, many local governments across California and Seattle led the charge in acknowledging these folks by passing mandates that require certain retail employers to provide hazard pay to their employees. Long Beach, California was the first city to pass such a law and then several others followed, including Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Seattle, Washington. What is unique about these ordinances is that they mostly impose specific obligations on businesses but unlike other similar laws, are not funded by the government. However, it is meaningful to point out that these are businesses that have been identified as possessing a “great ability to pay,” having profited generously from the pandemic, as mentioned above3.
On March 1, 2021, the City Council of Pomona, California, passed such a law, effective immediately, establishing premium pay for retail food workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new ordinance, currently active through June 29, 2021, requires retail establishments that employ 300 or more employees nationwide and more than 10 employees per location in Pomona, to provide their workers with premium pay of $4.00 for each hour worked. The “Hero Pay” Ordinance Fact Sheet created in connection with the law also includes grocery stores, retail pharmacies and ‘big box retailers’ that fit within the same parameters. Furthermore, it provides explicit definitions for retail establishment and covered retail employees2.
Unlike the other aforementioned hero pay ordinances in effect in California, the Pomona law differs in that it does not expressly exclude managers, supervisors, or confidential employees; creating a much broader subset of individuals assisted. Indeed.com, the online job board, recently reported that the average base salary for a retail store manager in California is just over $56,0003. While higher than the national average, so is the average cost of living, supporting the notion that any level employee that qualifies should receive “Hero Pay.”
As an added layer of protection, the ordinance also includes language that prohibits employers from “discharg[ing], reduc[ing] in compensation, or otherwise discriminat[ing] against any covered retail employee for opposing any practice proscribed by [the] Ordinance, for participating in proceedings related to [the] Ordinance, for seeking to exercise their rights under [the] Ordinance by any lawful means, or for otherwise asserting rights under [the] Ordinance.” Furthermore, employers are prohibited from “[l]imit[ing] a covered retail employee’s earning capacity” because of the ordinance. Employees are permitted to report any violations to the city such that it can pursue administrative action and are entitled to requisite damages should it be discovered that financial injury or other harm was caused2.
Pomona has set the tone with its “Hero Pay” Ordinance and many hope that counties and cities across the United States follow suit. However, policymakers have to balance the needs of these critical employees with the financial wherewithal of businesses. While many of these big businesses have the ability to comply, “a broader mandate for higher pay across all employers could leave financially struggling employers in a difficult position3.”
It would be easy to dismiss this topic as an issue of the past, but the Director of The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, recently advised that a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 first identified in the U.K. is starting to become the predominant strain in many regions of the United States, lending credence to the assertion that we are not yet out of the woods, and these workers are still very much in harm’s way5. In fact, while vaccine mandates in most states allow for prioritization of frontline workers, their constant exposure at work could still endanger the lives of those who share their households who are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine2.
The best gift we can give these mostly unsung heroes is to encourage municipalities across the country to follow the example of Pomona, California and pass and enforce laws that require big business to adequately compensate this country’s essential workers. There is truly no time like the present.