¿What’s Ahead for California Grocers? Interview with CGA President

The California Grocers Association (CGA), with more than 300 members operating more than 6,000 supermarkets in the state, highlighted the great work of independent operators in encouraging their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and continue to provide a safe space for consumers to shop.

In a dialogue with Abasto Magazine, Ronald Fong, president and CEO of the CGA, commented that the pandemic had caused difficulties and challenges for the association and its members. Still, since the beginning of the crisis, they have been working closely with local and state authorities.

“We have been helping government officials make decisions about how grocery stores should operate during the pandemic. We are also keeping our members informed of the decisions being made so they can operate safely,” Fong said.

Since mid-June, the State of California has lifted almost all of the restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19 infections, allowing the economy to reopen, thanks to the low levels of cases and the growing number of people vaccinated.

In this new stage, where the use of masks and social distancing for vaccinated people is no longer necessary, many of the emergency ordinances adopted by the governor and by the cities are no longer being enforced.

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One of those that expired was the Long Beach city ordinance passed at the beginning of the year that mandated a temporary $4 per hour wage increase for grocery store employees as an extra reward for being front-line workers.

The California Grocers Association, on behalf of the supermarkets, had filed a lawsuit in federal district court seeking to stop the extra pay because of the negative impact on the stores’ finances due to operating on razor-thin profit margins.

Since the ordinance was no longer in effect, the CGA withdrew its lawsuit against the city of Long Beach. However, ten other lawsuits were still ongoing against ten other California cities that also passed supermarket employee overtime pay ordinances in their respective jurisdictions as we went to press.

“The ordinances are no longer necessary because there is no longer a risk to our communities,” Fong said.

However, these local government measures have already hit the fragile finances of independent supermarkets that have had to shoulder a 30% increase in labor costs, Fong warned.

“We are going to have to increase the price of groceries or reduce employees’ working hours, or we are going to have to lay off a certain number of workers, these are the measures we have been forced to consider by all these ordinances,” the CGA president highlighted.

Amid the reopening of the economy in California, which is already beginning to experience some normalcy in its daily life after a long and painful year of pandemic, Fong envisions stabilization in purchasing patterns and the supply chain for the industry.

“I also feel that some of the safety measures are here to stay. For example, cleaning protocols, plexiglass partitions will probably continue to be used. There are a lot of good things we learned during the pandemic and will continue to use in stores,” said Fong.

While supermarket growth will not accelerate until after the fall and early 2022, Fong acknowledged that e-commerce continues to grow rapidly and recommended that California independent grocers adopt the system because “this is the way of the future.”