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State Grocery Worker Bill moves forward with token Food Desert Provision

Posted by By Robert Baird, Policy Analyst on July 28th, 2015
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The California State Senate is considering legislation (AB359) that would apply job protections in the grocery industry on a statewide level, following the example of Los Angeles and other cities that have adopted local ordinances in recent years to preserve employee positions during supermarket mergers.  The bill was introduced just three weeks after the latest in a series of industry-altering mergers, which have often left the grocery labor force vulnerable to job insecurity in the past.  While the overall grocery industry has grown by 5% in California since 2000, the wages of grocery workers have fallen by more than 12% and more than half now make less than a living wage.  If passed and signed into law, the bill would require a 90-day transition period and written evaluation for incumbent employees, concluding with an offer of continued employment for satisfactory performance.  

Unlike past local ordinances, AB359 recognizes that communities have varying experiences with the grocery industry, and that labor regulations can complicate efforts to incite grocery retail development in places struggling with underinvestment. To address this tension, census tracts identified as “food deserts” by the USDA would be exempted from the provisions beginning six years after store ownership is transferred.  However, the original USDA definition cited in the bill text, which is based on family income and a 1-mile proximity to the nearest supermarket, would only qualify 3 out of 172 low-income census tracts in South LA.  The length of the 6-year vesting period for the exemption would also likely disadvantage grocery retailers in competition with dollar-store and pharmacy chains to occupy limited retail locations.  CHC has suggested that the vesting period be limited to 2 years and that other “food desert” identifiers be considered, such as the USDA’s alternative ½-mile definition, which would qualify 83 additional census tracts in South LA.  However, the bill has passed the State Assembly and a State Senate committee with no updates to the bill’s “food desert” provision.             

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