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$5 ‘Hero Pay’ Considered For Frontline Workers In Unincorporated L.A. County

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Grocery Store Worker COVID-19 Hero Pay
Photo Courtesy of Supervisor Hilda Solis' Office

A $5 an hour “hero pay” for grocery and drug store workers in unincorporated Los Angeles County is set to be considered by the Board of Supervisors next week.  

If approved with at least four votes in favor, the urgency ordinance would enact a $5 per hour hazard pay to employees working frontline positions as compensation for the hazards these employees face during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the motion co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchel.

The proposal is expected to apply to companies that employ at least 300 workers nationwide and more than 10 employees per store.

“While many sectors were able to transition their workforce to working from home, millions of workers in face-to-face service industries were deemed ‘essential’ to ensure that our communities continue to operate, and basic needs continue to be provided,” the motion reads. 

The supervisors said frontline grocery and drug retail workers have been met with COVID-19 exposures and outbreaks in their place of work. 

The inability to practice social distancing consistently at work due to large crowds has not only increased exposure risks but also contributed to the psychological distress workers have felt during the pandemic, with research finding that employees with direct customer exposure were five times more likely to test positive with the burden of the crisis affecting the most vulnerable low-income communities, especially low-income workers of color, according to the motion. 

Meanwhile, some of the largest grocery retailers in the nation and county have flourished and expanded their market share, the supervisors argue. 

“These employers employ a labor workforce that consists of low-wage workers who have been disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout of this pandemic, with nearly half of low-wage workers having trouble paying their bills and roughly a third having found these top retailers have seen a 40% increase in profit averaging $16.7 billion in grocery and drug retail workers are among the heroes of this pandemic, putting their lives on the line – often for low wages and minimal benefits- in order to sustain our food system and maintain healthy communities,” the motion reads.

Those in the grocery industry fear measures like this might lead to increased costs to consumers as well as potentially reduced hours for workers. 

“This could increase grocery prices for families in an economic time where many people are struggling,” said Nate Rose, spokesperson for the California Grocers Association (CGA).

The industry association did an economic study on the impact of wage increase ordinances and found the grocery costs for a family of four could increase by hundreds of dollars a year, according to Rose. 

The spokesperson added a one-size-fits-all plan is not feasible and it should be up to each company to enact a hazard pay or bonus for their employees. 

Trader Joe’s recently announced a “thank you” pay increase of $2 an hour for a total of an extra $4 per hour since the start of the pandemic. 

Another grocer, Kroger, has invested about $1 billion in protection efforts for employees and staff including plexiglass dividers at check-out stands, he said.

Last month, the City of Long Beach passed a similar “Hero Pay” measure, which the GCA is challenging in court. 

“We believe these ordinances are illegal and unconstitutional,” Rose said.

After the Long Beach measure was enacted, Kroger closed two stores, a Ralph’s and Food 4 Less.

Rose said this was due to the hazard pay cutting into the already slim margins of a grocery store, which is anywhere from 1 to 2%. 

If approved the urgency ordinance is expected to be in effect for 120 days, with an option to extend the order, according to the motion. 

The Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the measure at their regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Community News

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve Open For Spring Season

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Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve1
Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is now open for the spring season, with the state flower expected to bloom in the coming weeks. 

Monday marked the start of poppy season with the reserve in Lancaster, open for residents to enjoy with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. 

Each spring, the California Poppy Reserve “comes alive” with the seasonal surprises of the Mojave Desert Grassland habitat.  

The exact date for the poppy bloom is unknown, and due to low rainfall, a super bloom like the one seen in years past is not expected.   

“While the poppy season ‘officially’ starts March 1, we don’t always know when the bloom will happen,” said Steven Ptomey, a cultural resources program supervisor for the California Department of Parks and Recreation. 

From past seasons at the poppy reserve, Ptomey is expecting this year’s bloom to start mid to late March, and not be as full or as long as past blooms.  

“If we have any major storms or precipitation in early March, this could push the time frame back to the beginning of April,” Ptomey said.  

The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is keeping the wildflower hotline updated weekly as well as the reserves’ social media pages including Facebook and Instagram.

Ptomey advises guests to bring a hat, sunscreen, some comfortable walking shoes, water and “a sense of adventure.” 

Dogs and other pets are not allowed on any of the trails at the reserve, with the exemption of service animals. 

Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019

COVID-19 guidelines are in place at the poppy reserve, with six-foot social distancing between guests outside of the same household. 

Face coverings are required when a six-foot distance is unable to be kept, in-line with California state law. 

Trails and bathrooms are open at the poppy reserve, but the visitor center is closed, according to Ptomey. 

There are eight miles of trails through the rolling hills, including a paved section for wheelchair access, according to park officials. 

Guests are required to stay on the trail to prevent damage to the poppies.  

“Getting a picture of one really nice wildflower off the trail will crush all the plants along the way and compact the soil, leaving lifeless bare dirt for the next few years or longer,” park officials said. 

Residents are encouraged to follow the trail map to avoid compounding damage to illegal trails. 

“Everything is protected, from the tiniest wildflower to the rocks on the trail,” park officials said. “Damaging or collecting anything from the park is prohibited. Poppies wilt immediately after being picked, and they hold the seeds that we need for the next year’s wildflowers.” 

The state natural reserve is located on California’s most consistent poppy-bearing land. 

“Other wildflowers: owl’s clover, lupine, goldfield, cream cups, and coreopsis, to name a few, share the desert grassland to produce a mosaic of color and fragrance each spring,” park officials said.

California State Parks does not water or use any other means to stimulate the flowers; the land is preserved to only be influenced by the natural forces that had once influenced all of our surroundings.  

“The broad views of this landscape provide eyefuls of brilliant wildflower colors and fragrance,” park officials said. “Whether you most enjoy expansive fields or the close-up study of a single flower, this is the place to visit.”

The reserve is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to active recreation with restrictions in place to encourage social distancing and reduce group gatherings.  Very limited parking is now available to the public. 

Guests are requested to pay by credit/debit card or bring the exact dollar amount of $10 for the day-use fee.

For more information on the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, visit here

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Free Fare For Low-Income Residents, K-12 Students Proposed By L.A. Metro

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LA Metro Los Angeles Metro
Photo by Chris Yarzab

A pilot program has been proposed to provide free fare for low-income riders and K-12 students in Los Angeles County starting next year, with transit authorities seeking input. 

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) announced the pilot program following the Fareless System Initiative study requested by Metro CEO Phillip Washington.

A leading concept has emerged – an 18-month fareless pilot program that would provide free rides on Metro buses and rail service for low-income riders starting in January 2022 and K-12 students starting in August 2022. The pilot would be set to end on June 30, 2023.

The agency reported during a meeting last week about 70% of Metro riders make less than $35,000 a year and are expected to qualify for free trips under the pilot program.

Riders in the program could save an estimated $1,200 each year, according to Metro.

The proposal includes Metro rail and bus lines, however, other public transit options including Metrolink, Access Services, Metro bike share and micro transit are not included. 

Transit authority officials have no intent or plan to seek an additional sales tax to subsidize the free fare. Rather, Metro studying whether fareless transit could be paid for with grants from the state or federal government, existing revenues, such as advertising, and other sources, according to the agency. 

The Fareless System Initiative project team is set to present at the five local Service Council meetings in March for residents to provide feedback.

Metro’s local Service Councils advise on planning and implementation of Metro services in five geographic regions, but the presentation will be the same. These meetings will also be an opportunity for participants to ask questions and provide input. 

  • San Fernando Valley Service Council, on Wednesday, March 3 at 6:30 p.m. 
  • San Gabriel Valley Service Council, on Monday, March 8 at 5 p.m. 
  • Westside/Central Service Council, on Wednesday, March 10 at 6 p.m. 
  • Gateway Cities Service Council, on Thursday, March 11 at 2 p.m. 
  • South Bay Service Council, on Friday, March 12 at 9:30 a.m.

All agendas are expected to be posted here and residents can access all the meetings here.   

Residents with questions about these meetings or about the Fareless System Initiative are encouraged to email Metro at fareless@metro.net.

Note: This story has been updated with additional information from Metro.

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San Fernando Valley Cultural Center Burglarized, Nonprofit Seeks Community Support

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UNITE Cultural Center Los Angeles San Fernando Valley
The UNITE Cultural Center grand opening in August of 2019. Courtesy photo.

The UNITE Cultural Center, which serves youth and families across the San Fernando Valley, was broken into early Wednesday morning.

The cultural center serves as the headquarters of the nonprofit, AWOKE, a youth-led organization that improves access to the arts and athletics, increases civic engagement, and fosters positive youth and community development. 

“We focus on hip-hop culture as a way to engage youth. The center is a cultural hub, a place for the community to come together,” said Pierre Arreola, executive director of AWOKE.

Two men forced entry into the back of the nonprofit’s headquarters, stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment necessary for their programming. 

Last week, Arreola received a phone call at 5 a.m. from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to inform him of a break-in at the cultural center.

“It was just such a blow to hear about what happened,” he said. “We are all about positivity, if the people that did this needed something, we would have gladly helped out.”

The pair ransacked AWOKE’s Canoga Park location and took off with laptops, audio/visual equipment, cash and merchandise. 

However, Arreola said the physical items can be replaced. One thing that was taken cannot — hard drives containing a decade of archival footage from the youth in the program. 

“That is what hurt the most. Those things, you just can’t replace,” he explained. 

Several members of the nonprofit searched the surrounding area for the lost drives but were never found. 

“Some of our folks needed that footage for college applications,” Arreola said. “I don’t care about the material things, we just want that back.” 

A screenshot of security footage from after the burglary at the cultural center, when one of the suspects returned.

Last week’s break-in marks the second time the center was broken into, with the first just before the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The first burglary was unsuccessful after a construction crew across the street chased off the would-be intruder after hearing the storefront glass shatter. 

“Thankfully, nothing was taken during the first one,” he said. “But glass windows are expensive. It took away money we could have used for the program.”

Arreola said preventing negativity in the community is the whole reason AWOKE was created, adding if a program like this was available for the suspects, the break-ins may have been prevented. 

“We were surrounded by crime and drugs growing up,” he said “The arts were a way for us to not get caught up in all of that.” 

While the formal nonprofit was founded in 2017, the organization’s roots date back 10 years prior to when Arreola was in high school. 

“Coming from Pacoima, some people thought we were the ‘scum of the earth,’” Arreola said. “We wanted to show there is greatness in the San Fernando Valley.”

Along with several friends, he started the GR818ERS, pronounced “great-one-eighters,” to showcase dancers, artists and others in the community. 

GR818ERS hosted breakdancing events in public parks and street corners, but over 10 years, the organization kept growing. 

In August of 2019, the UNITE Cultural Center opened in Canoga Park as a physical space for youth to gather and express themselves through art. 

“These folks sometimes have nowhere else to go,” Arreola said. “We wanted a place for the youth to showcase themselves and their abilities.”

A few months after the center opened, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Los Angeles County prompting a shutdown of their physical location, however, the programming continued. 

AWOKE pivoted to virtual programming, reaching youth at their form of online communication: social media. 

“We used Instagram Live, Facebook, YouTube and other ways to engage youth through the pandemic,” Arreola said. “Now more than ever, folks need an outlet.” 

A UNITE dance class before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nonprofit decided to continue a yearly dance competition, which is their biggest fundraiser of the year, but reformatted the event to conform to COVID-19 guidelines.

Over 300 artists entered the competition, with the final 32 being voted on by the community. 

“It was an overwhelming response,” Arreola said. “We reached people from all over the world, from Latin America, Asia, Europe.”

Now events such as this cannot happen after equipment necessary to run virtual programming was taken in the burglary, according to the executive director. 

“This is a setback for us as we continue to provide crucial services to youth during the pandemic,” Arreola said. 

During a virtual event at the height of the first COVID-19 lockdown, a youth member said, “Dance is the thing that is keeping me sane for real. I lost my grandmother, uncle, and close friend to COVID-19. This event was necessary for me and for street dance culture as a whole.”

AWOKE is asking for the community’s help in finding the perpetrators to recover stolen equipment and irreplaceable archives. 

The nonprofit is also seeking financial support from the community to those able to donate. 

For more information, visit their website or contact via email here or phone at 818-421-7299.

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