As several cities in San Mateo County pass pay increase ordinances for grocery and drugstore workers, Belmont remains stalled on the issue, with some members of the City Council concerned about moving forward too quickly and fairness issues.
“I can fully agree with your goals, objectives and the desire, but I’d like to get a little bit more knowledge and understanding about this before we make the decision to proceed,” Councilman Warren Lieberman said.
Lieberman at the Tuesday City Council meeting expressed concerns about moving forward with an ordinance, citing the extraordinary difficulty of the topic, the potential legal ramifications, a lack of concrete details about stores affected and not enough input from Lunardi’s Markets. The regional grocery chain has a store in Belmont but has not responded to city requests for comment and input as of Wednesday.
“I’m concerned about proceeding without at least having heard from Lunardi’s,” Lieberman said.
Belmont first discussed the issue Feb. 9 and established a Hazard Pay Subcommittee, made up of Councilwoman Davina Hurt and Vice Mayor Julia Mates, to research and talk with local labor and large grocery store stakeholders about the issue. Both expressed an interest Tuesday in bringing back an ordinance for discussion that would provide more details about how it would work. South San Francisco, Daly City and San Mateo recently passed a temporary ordinance for a $5 pay increase for essential grocery and drugstore workers working for large corporations, while other Peninsula cities have put the issue on agendas for discussion.
Hurt supported drafting an ordinance for further discussion to help support workers who deal with COVID-19 exposure continually.
“This is not ordinary times. I, too, try to sit on the seat of trying not to mandate or over-regulate, but in this case, it’s the right thing to do to step up for these workers,” Hurt said.
Hurt met virtually with Safeway representatives, who told her the company did not plan to do more on pay increases and will focus instead on vaccinations for employees. She said she did not receive a straight answer on why hazard pay had stopped after being around for a few months last year. There are two Safeway stores in Belmont. To address Lieberman’s concerns, she recommended drafting a proposed ordinance that could provide more details and would not have to be voted on but could involve discussion.
“The idea moving forward with an ordinance is not to harm our local businesses. I want to be very clear about that. I think it can be worded that we don’t do that. But I do think it’s a fine balance,” Hurt said.
Mates favored bringing back an ordinance with more information for discussion. She said issues around what stores would be eligible are something that staff could work on and provide further clarity.
“Should we decide to have staff come back and bring us a draft ordinance, we can work out those kinds of details,” Mates said.
Lieberman stated he didn’t want to immediately draft an ordinance, as it would likely pass at a future meeting and would influence the discussion’s objectivity at that time. He also stressed the importance of finding out how Lunardi’s would be affected and decisions it would make on employees based on the city’s decision.
“There is no way I will agree to a carveout on number of employees that we know excludes Lunardi’s but doesn’t Safeway. It doesn’t make sense. If we are going to be here talking about hazard pay, I cannot in good conscience have an ordinance that doesn’t address both of those companies, and I don’t know how many workers they have right now,” Lieberman said.
Councilman Tom McCune praised grocery workers’ professionalism and work, saying Belmont wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic without reliable supermarkets and dedicated workers. However, he expressed concern about fairness, as the ordinance would only apply to some essential workers and stores in the city and not others. He thought it would disadvantage Belmont stores and lead to customers shopping in other cities who didn’t adopt the ordinance. He wants something consistent that doesn’t create unintended consequences and is tied to the hazard risk, not the company’s ability to pay.
“I am not saying I would or would not vote against an ordinance that comes through. I would take a look at any draft ordinance that comes through, but I really struggle with some issues of fairness with this kind of ordinance,” McCune said.
Belmont Mayor Charles Stone recused himself from the discussion because the firm he works for handles litigation cases for Safeway.
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