“Hero pay” laws, which require big wage increases for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, are sweeping the West Coast. Store closures, unemployment, and lawsuits have followed in their wake.
The first of these laws, passed in late January by the Long Beach, California, City Council, mandated that grocery workers at large stores get a $4-an-hour pay raise for the duration of the pandemic. By early February, Kroger announced it was shutting down two stores in Long Beach.
The locations had already been underperforming, the company said, but the new pay hike meant they were now unsustainable. It was the same story in Seattle and Los Angeles: In response to “hero pay” laws, Kroger said it would close three stores in each city.
Even with record pandemic profits, grocery stores operate on very slim margins. Big, sudden increases in expenses have to be absorbed somewhere. Those stores with the least room to make up added costs are the most at risk of being shuttered.
Most supermarkets, of course, will survive, likely through a combination of price hikes, layoffs, and employee hour reductions. These consequences are a compressed version of what we’d expect from the much-discussed idea of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour: pay raises for many workers, job losses for others, and higher prices and fewer options for consumers. Unlike with a minimum wage increase, however, the costs of “hero pay” laws are obvious, immediate, and visible to everyone.