The Council Considers and Rejects the Hazard Pay Ordinance

April 14, 2021

On March 22, the San Carlos City Council conducted a study session and discussion on a hazard pay ordinance sponsored by Parmer-Lohan at its bi-weekly virtual meeting.

Ultimately, Parmer-Lohan’s proposal was only supported by Rak, who was interested in continuing the exploration of the topic. Councilmembers Collins, Dugan, and Vice Mayor Sara McDowell all opposed pursuing the policy, effectively killing the consideration of the hazard pay issue in San Carlos.

The meeting began with a series of questions posed by the council, directed at city staff members, that were meant to clear up any uncertainties surrounding the potential ordinance. In response to a question posed by Dugan, who expressed concerns with the toll that a potential lawsuit could take on the city, Rubens responded with an estimate that a legal case, with a trial, could take a year or more to sort out.

Rubens estimated the cost to the city would primarily fall upon the city’s coffers, stressing that it was questionable as to whether the city would have coverage by its insurance. With insurance, Rubens estimated the costs would total about $100,000, while a non-insured trial would total upwards of $250,000.

During the meeting, Dugan questioned the “scope of the ordinance,” expressing worries that the ordinance would be too “narrow.”

Assistant City Manager Tara Peterson and Rubens agreed that the issue came from a movement led by either labor unions or workers themselves.

“[The hazard pay ordinance movement's] genesis is definitely from the grocery store workers and the related organizations,” Rubens said.

Before the council’s discussion, public comments were provided by Hedges, who returned to highlight a federal judge’s decision that dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt a hazard pay ordinance in Seattle. Lind also commented again and called upon the council to “mirror the actions of four local cities” and take up the ordinance.

As the public comment ended, the council transitioned to a discussion among council members. 

Beginning the discussion, Parmer-Lohan refuted the notion that a hazard pay ordinance was government overreach, maintaining that it was within the city’s jurisdiction to implement this sort of ordinance. In her argument, Parmer-Lohan noted that 1 in 5 grocery store workers have contracted COVID-19, as supported by a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a weekly peer-reviewed medical trade journal published by the trade union the British Medical Association (BMA), that focused on American grocery store employees.

“Under normal circumstances, I would not support inserting government into the relationship between employers and their employees,” Parmer-Lohan said. “However, we all know these are not normal times.”

Parmer-Lohan continued, highlighting that grocery and drug store workers are usually near the lower end of the pay scale and had received hazard pay, only to have those policies discontinued after a few months in most cases. Parmer-Lohan expressed concern about the availability of the vaccine.

“I echo the sentiments of these essential workers on who we have depended during the pandemic,” Parmer-Lohan said. “[Factors such as low pay, a high rate of exposure, and the uncertainty surrounding the vaccine] moved me to invite the question as to what we can do to support those who have served our community so heroically.”

As the meeting progressed, opponents of the ordinance expressed concerns that it was unnecessary. Furthermore, according to Peterson, Trader Joe’s, CVS, Lucky, Walgreens, and Dollar Tree, which would be affected by the ordinance, are all either offering increased pay during the pandemic or have offered a pay bonus.

In explaining their reasoning for withholding their support, the three councilmembers touched on a few concerns and reservations they still held. 

Vice Mayor Sara McDowell maintained that she could not support the ordinance after considering the impact a potential lawsuit may have on the city’s fragile budget. Acknowledging that Daly City had recently been sued, McDowell said that a lawsuit would cripple the budget and pointed out that the California Grocers Association (CGA) has promised to pursue a legal battle with any municipality that goes forward with the implementation of a hazard pay ordinance.

“The threat of substantial legal fees to defend ourselves in federal court […] gives me pause,” McDowell said. “We are a very small city and last year we had to make some really tough budget cuts, including laying off some employees. I don’t want to be faced with that again.”

Also siding against the ordinance, Collins indicated that he was wary of legal issues that may arise as a result of the implementation of the ordinance. Mirroring McDowell, Collins’ main concern came from the cost, rather than the viability of the ordinance. 

“Even if we win, I don’t want to spend the money fighting a lawsuit that we shouldn’t have to fight in the first place […] These things just tend to take on a life of their own,” Collins said. 

Collins also publicly reiterated his view that a city the size of San Carlos should not involve itself in labor disputes. As an alternative, he shared his support for a resolution that would encourage local grocery and drug stores to provide hazard pay for their workers.

“I really think the stores ought to step up and provide the protection, because the workers deserve it, and I have a problem with us mandating it,” Collins said. 

Reflecting earlier comments made in an interview with Scot Scoop, Collins worried about government involvement in private companies and labor disputes. 

Summarizing his points and proposing that no action be taken, Collins said, “Why should we have to tell the owners of the stores that they need to do this? […] I think it’s a terrible idea to go down the road of telling these stores that they need to pay their workers money that they should already be paying, even if it’s for a short period of time. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Rak responded to Collins, musing upon the question as to what a government should do if the companies refuse to implement hazard pay policies on their own. Ultimately, Rak expressed his support for a temporary ordinance, acknowledging while the scope of the ordinance may be narrow, it would still provide support for a set of workers that have been on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“If [private companies] are not [providing hazard pay], then maybe they need to be pushed to do it; to do the right thing. I’m certainly open to supporting an ordinance around [hazard pay] that is tailored, very narrow, and has a time limit on it,” Rak said. 

The third opponent of the ordinance, Dugan questioned the equity of the measure and its exclusion of other essential workers. Voicing concerns for forcing private companies to spend on the hazard pay, he noted that “significant funds” may be coming to San Carlos in the near future, and he encouraged the use of the federal dollars, via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funding, to support frontline workers.

“I do draw a distinction between us as a community helping people and us as a city council mandating five or six employers in town to do something that we are not willing to put public dollars behind,” Dugan said.

McDowell provided further support, mentioning that California Gov. Gavin Newson recently signed into law SB-95, expanding COVID-19-related supplemental paid sick leave in California. 

This bill provides COVID-19-related supplemental sick leave to employees who are unable to work due to COVID-19, applying to employers with more than 25 employees. Taking effect on March 29, the law applies retroactively to Jan. 1, 2021, and lasts until Sept. 30, 2021.

The culmination of these factors meant that, despite support from the mayor, the opposition prevailed. Summing up her points, Parmer-Lohan expressed disappointment that the council would not move forward with the issue. 

“The bottom line is there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,” Parmer-Lohan said.

Expressing reservations held by the three opponents of the ordinance, Dugan said, “I don’t find what’s before us tonight to be equitable. I think we are singling out a very small handful of employers […] and I am troubled by the narrowness of [the hazard pay ordinance].”

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The Council Considers and Rejects the Hazard Pay Ordinance