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When Gisele Heredia applied to work as a courtesy clerk at a local Northgate, she expected it to be a normal grocery store job. She’d go for a few hours and spend the day bagging groceries.
Instead, she was hurled into chaotic 10 hour shifts of endless bagging and having to restrain people from buying three sacks of beans, as the 19-year-old started the job just three days after schools shut down and people began panic-buying supplies.
“As soon as I got there, I was bagging boxes and boxes of macaroni and cheese,” Heredia said. “And so much toilet paper.”
Grocery store employees like Heredia have been working in stressful and high-risk environments throughout the pandemic, all while being paid minimum wage. To compensate these frontline workers, the Long Beach City Council passed a “hero pay” mandate this January, giving grocery store employees in Long Beach a $4 per hour raise.
Hero pay has been met with backlash from corporations like The Kroger Company, which shut down two Long Beach stores, and a California Grocers Association lawsuit attempting to block the ordinance. But the lawsuit was blocked, and hero pay has been in full effect.
“There’s this misconception that grocery store workers are just teenagers,” Heredia said. “But the truth is, they’re mostly older people, single moms, etc. and this is their only income.”
Heredia said that employees at her store were happy the mandate passed since they hadn’t previously received any hazard pay.
Unlike Northgate, Whole Foods did initially give employees a $2 hazard pay raise back in April 2020, which lasted approximately three months. Yet, according to one worker, the topic of hero pay was much avoided by team leads and regional management.
“There wasn’t much conversation about the whole topic honestly, up until the point we did get it,” said the worker, who asked to be referred to as Ray, to avoid repercussions from the company.
Workers in cities with hero pay ordinances have reported having their hours cut. Long Beach hasn’t escaped this, as the Lazy Acres in the city cut employees’ hours, affecting part-time workers like Ashley Ramos. Lazy Acres did not reply to a request for comment by the time of this article’s publication.
Ramos, 21, has been working at Lazy Acres for three years. Since first receiving hero pay, they went from working four days a week to only two days, equal to approximately 11 hours per week. The only explanation they were given was that the store director was given fewer hours to assign and full-time workers were prioritized so they could complete a full-time schedule. They also told Ramos that this was because the store had been slow and they were simply reflecting that. But Ramos feels like it shows a lack of care for part-time workers.
The $4 raise has made a significant difference for Ramos. Their hours being cut down meant they would have been making less than $200 per week, but due to hero pay they are currently making around $250.
Lizette Ramon, a cashier at Target, which is not receiving hero pay, said she understands that they are not technically a grocery store but essentially function as such.
“We are still here,” said Ramon, 18. “We are still open and we are still considered essential.”
Ramon has mixed feelings about the pay increase. Though it would help Ramon pay bills, especially since her mother is currently unable to work, rumors of employees getting fewer hours or even fired make her feel she might have dodged a bullet.
“I mean, it would’ve been nice,” she said. “But I’m just grateful I have a job.”
Both Heredia and Ray doubt that grocery chains’ unfavorable reactions to hero pay correlate with their actual profits.
“Stores have been making a profit. I know they can afford the $4 raise,” Heredia said, pointing out that as business restrictions ebb and flow, grocery stores have remained open. “They just want to be greedy.”
The raise has helped Heredia pay for her college textbooks and supplies. She said another coworker who is not receiving financial aid is paying her tuition with her hero pay earnings.
As for Ray, the extra money comes at perfect timing; his car recently broke down and left him with no choice but to lease a new one. It will also help him pay his rent more comfortably.
Above all, the money will give him peace of mind. Working long hours has taken a toll on his mental health, so knowing he will be financially compensated for his efforts puts him at ease.
“I don’t get a lot of time to myself on the days that I work,” he said. “So the $4 is making everything feel a little bit better.”
The mandate was passed to last for 120 days since its approval, meaning that unless renewed, it will expire on May 19 and stores will not be obligated to continue paying the extra $4 per hour. As of this article’s publication, hero pay is not on the agenda for the May 18 city council meeting, the last meeting before hero pay’s expiration date. Heredia finds it absurd that the mandate is temporary, arguing that it should be in effect for the entirety of the pandemic, however long the pandemic lasts.
“People are risking their lives coming to work and they deserve a higher raise until it all clears up,” she said.
The impermanence of the raise is also Ramos’ main concern. Lazy Acres already downsized security at the store, and Ramos wonders what will happen to workers like them once there are no legalities involved.
“Going back is the sad part,” Ramos said. “Going back to being an underpaid worker.”