Coachella first U.S. city to offer “hero pay” for farmworkers

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A number of West Coast cities have recently moved to require that large grocery chains offer employees what has come to be known as “hero” or “hazard” pay for working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, officials in Coachella, California, say they are the first in the U.S. to offer the same financial bonus to farmworkers.

Approved unanimously by the Coachella city council on Wednesday, the emergency ordinance requires some agricultural operations, along with grocery stores, retail pharmacies and restaurants, to pay an extra $4 an hour to their workers in Coachella for four months, effective immediately. The mandate applies to employers with at least 300 workers nationally and at least six employees in the city.

About 8,000 farmworkers live in the wider Coachella Valley, where celebrated labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez organized farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s. California has nearly 800,000 agricultural workers.

“We know that COVID has been more prominent in these agricultural communities, and if you look at the mortality rates, a lot of farmworkers have died,” Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez told the Los Angeles Times. “You can see the devastation.”

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found a 13% positivity rate for the coronavirus among more than 1,000 farmworkers tested in California from mid-July through November 2020, compared to 5% of the state’s population overall. 

“The majority of farmworkers believed that COVID-19 is a real threat and are very concerned about COVID-19,” the researchers wrote in November. “Many have loved ones who have been sick with COVID-19 and some have died. Many fear losing their job if they get sick, and more than a third are food insecure during this pandemic.”

Grocery stores closing over “hazard pay” 01:12

There’s reason for their concerns. Researchers at Berkeley reported in December that working-age adults in California were 22% more likely to die during the 2020 pandemic than before COVID-19 ravaged the state. Pandemic-era death rates — from all causes, including COVID-19 — rose by 39% for California’s restaurant and agricultural workers, their study found. Latinx adults in those industries suffered even more: Their death rates went up about 60%. The study involved analyzing state death records for Californians ages 18 to 65 between March 2020 through October 2020.

The new law in Coachella comes amid legal challenges to hazard pay measures that have been adopted across California and in Seattle. Supermarket industry trade groups have attacked the additional pay as unsustainable. 

The California Grocers Association is suing the cities of Long Beach, Oakland and Montebello for approving temporary wage hikes for grocery workers, and a similar legal battle is playing out in Seattle. Kroger reacted to a hazard pay ordinance recently passed in Long Beach by saying it would close two stores in the city in April. 

At least 137 grocery workers around the U.S. have died of COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

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