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Kroger Closes 2 California Stores After City Required Them To Increase Staff Pay

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The national supermarket company Kroger is planning to close two stores in the California city of Long Beach. Kroger blames the decision on local lawmakers who recently passed a temporary wage hike for grocery workers. Union leaders call it retaliation. From member station KPCC in Los Angeles, David Wagner reports.

DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: Last month, the City Council of Long Beach passed an ordinance requiring hazard pay for grocery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large grocery chains now have to pay their workers in Long Beach an additional $4 per hour for 120 days. Mayor Robert Garcia said grocery workers deserve compensation for taking on huge risks during California's COVID surge.

ROBERT GARCIA: Unfortunately, a lot of these workers are harassed, and they have to deal with folks who don't want to comply with the rules. And they're trying to protect themselves and their family, and they don't have the choice to not work or to work from home.

WAGNER: Other areas, including the city and county of LA, are now considering similar policies to boost pay for grocery workers. But California's grocery industry has protested, arguing extra pay won't keep workers safe but will lead to layoffs and higher food prices. Kroger operates more than 300 grocery stores in California. This week, the company announced plans to close two supermarkets in Long Beach. A spokesman said the stores were already underperforming, and boosting hourly pay by $4 forced the company to shut them down.

ANDREA ZINDER: This is hostile retaliation against workers who have been on the front lines since the beginning of the pandemic.

WAGNER: Andrea Zinder is the president of the local grocery workers union. Grocery sales have soared during the pandemic as consumers shift from dining out to eating at home. Kroger's profits increased by 90% last year, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Zinder says workers think Kroger can afford a temporary pay bump.

ZINDER: I think they want workers to feel like, oh, no, if we speak up for what is right, the company may terminate our employment.

WAGNER: Nearly 200 employees in Long Beach could lose their jobs when the stores close. Meanwhile, the California Grocers Association is challenging the city's mandate in court. The industry group warns that if the policy spreads to other cities, more stores are likely to close.

For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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