Grocery owners say coronavirus hazard pay would force closures

Morton Williams, D'Agostino and more small grocers fear layoffs, closures if hazard pay is required

Grocery store chains warn they could face layoffs and closures if a New York City Council proposal mandating “hazard pay” to supermarket and other essential staffers working during the coronavirus pandemic passes.

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Food markets with more than 100 workers would be required to give hourly employees an extra $30 to $75 per shift during COVID-19 under the proposed legislation, which is part of similar bills lawmakers are weighing aimed at helping small businesses and tenants financially affected by the virus have more time to back debt and rent.

A clerk wears personal protective equipment as they stock shelves at a grocery store, Saturday, in the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Independent grocery store owners say the mandate would hit their businesses especially hard given that they are already grappling with high rent costs and competition from big national supermarket chains.

New York City-based Morton Williams grocery store owner Avi Kaner told the Real Deal the hazard pay would tack on nearly $350,000 to his business’ payroll, an added cost he says the business can’t take on.

“The day it goes into effect, we would immediately close half of our stores and look at the remaining stores very closely to see if we could even keep the doors open,” he said.  “We just don’t have the wherewithal — unless the city wants to pay for this mandate.”

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Other grocers agreed that the hazard pay, defined by the Department of Labor as "additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship," would bury them further, financially.

“I’m having people come in from the outside and clean stores. I’m providing masks for everyone. I’m trying to provide them with PPE,” he said. “It’s not like there aren’t expenses to this whole process,” Nicholas D’Agostino, owner of the supermarket chain D’Agostino told the Real Deal.

“We would like to be in business when this is all over,” he added.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week hazard pay should be funded at the federal level.

“The best way to handle all of this is to do a federal bonus program and this is what Senator [Charles] Schumer has called for, a Hero’s Fund for the frontline workers,” de Blasio said on WNYC radio. “That’s the way I think we can resolve it and that’s going to be decided in May.”

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