In summary

Workers across California are hitting the picket line to protest staff shortages and wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.

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Welcome to Striketober — in March.

Workers across California are hitting the picket line to protest staff shortages and what they say are unsafe labor conditions and wages inadequate to cover the skyrocketing cost of living — heightening the stakes of ongoing labor negotiations and increasing pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers to quickly settle on a plan for sending financial relief to residents.

  • More than 500 workers at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond went on strike early Monday, calling for a “Bay Area bump” in wages. Chevron doesn’t “plan on giving our members any more help with inflation and with the high cost of living,” B.K. White, first vice president of United Steel Workers Local 5, told the Mercury News. “We’re not trying to get rich, we’re trying to maintain a standard of living and not require workers … work themselves to death just to stay in the Bay Area.”
  • Sacramento City Unified School District employees are preparing to go on strike Wednesday — a move that could shutter campuses serving about 40,000 students — though union and district representatives were set to return to the bargaining table Tuesday. One of the union’s demands: a cost-of-living raise, which was supported by an independent review by a panel from the California Public Employment Relations Board.
  • And more than 47,000 grocery workers in Southern and Central California started voting Monday on whether to authorize a strike against supermarket chains Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions. “It’s like we’ve walked through hell and can’t stop now,” John Grant, president of United Food and Commercial Workers 770, told the Los Angeles Times. He called the companies’ proposal to give the highest-tier grocery workers a 60-cent annual wage increase over three years “paltry” and said it didn’t address the soaring cost of living.

The strikes suggest that California’s rising cost of living could be a key issue for voters in the 2022 elections — and Republican lawmakers are seizing the opportunity to slam Democrats.

  • The Assembly Republican Caucus on Monday unveiled a timer tracking the amount of time that’s passed since Newsom’s vague promise, outlined in his State of the State speech, to put money back in Californians’ pockets to help them pay for gas and other necessities. (As of Monday, it was 12 days.) “Every minute that Democrats stall is a minute California families are forced to choose between a full tank of gas and a full cart of groceries,” said Assembly GOP Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City, noting that Democrats shot down Republicans’ proposal to immediately suspend the state’s excise gas tax.
  • And experts say the strike at the Richmond Chevron refinery, which accounts for 13% to 14% of California’s refinery capacity, could cause the state’s gas prices to spike even more — though Chevron says operations are expected to continue as normal.
  • Any additional increase could be politically perilous: California’s average gas prices continue to rise, reaching a new high of $5.855 on Monday, even as the national average is dropping, according to the American Automobile Association.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Sunday, California had 8,465,358 confirmed cases (+0.2% from previous day) and 87,485 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 72,451,777 vaccine doses, and 74.3% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

1. CA cracks down on water contaminant

A water faucet in a home in California. March 18, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A water faucet in a California home on March 18, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Many Californians would see their water bills go up under state regulators’ Monday proposal to limit the amount of hexavalent chromium — a cancer-causing contaminant made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich” — in drinking water, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports.

  • The first-in-the-nation proposal, which is unlikely to be finalized before 2024, could cause rates to rise by $38 per month for California’s smallest water systems and between 75 cents and $45 per month for the largest systems.
  • Water suppliers could be hit with large fines for failing to comply with the state’s proposed limit of 10 parts per billion — equivalent to about 10 drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Several hundred drinking water wells throughout California exceed this standard, with the highest levels reported in parts of Ventura, Los Angeles, Yolo, Merced and Riverside counties.
  • But environmental experts say the proposed limit isn’t stringent enough, pointing out that it still poses the risk of causing one cancer case per 2,000 people over their lifetime.
  • Darrin Polhemus of the State Water Resources Control Board: “I think we would all much prefer to be at a better protective level than one in 2,000 cancer cases. But the costs do impose a really high burden at the lower (standard) levels, and (we) just couldn’t strike that balance there.”

2. Is CA headed for another COVID uptick?

Alex Price-Hanson receives a COVID-19 rapid test at Greater St. Paul Church in downtown Oakland on January 4, 2022. Martin do Nascimento/CalMatters
Alex Price-Hanson receives a COVID-19 rapid test at Greater St. Paul Church in Oakland on Jan. 4, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Although COVID cases are declining in California — the statewide test positivity rate fell to 1.3% on Monday, a figure not seen since July — experts warn the state could soon see an uptick in cases due to the omicron sub-variant BA.2, which is thought to be 30% to 60% more contagious than omicron itself. Coronavirus infections are rising in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe, and cases rose globally during the week ending March 13 for the first time since the end of January, according to the World Health Organization.

  • Justin Meyer, an evolutionary biologist at UC San Diego: “I think soon cases in the U.S. will begin to increase, just like they did for the delta and omicron waves.”
  • If BA.2 does prompt cases to spike in California, it could be the first big test of the state’s long-term plan for dealing with COVID, dubbed SMARTER. It could also prompt state and local officials to reevaluate recent decisions to roll back many COVID restrictions, such as indoor mask mandates and vaccine-or-test requirements.
  • One tool that many scientists agree should play a large role in helping the state monitor future iterations of COVID: wastewater surveillance. As Kaiser Health News reports, it’s relatively low-budget, effective in detecting the virus before people show symptoms, and doesn’t rely on people’s ability to access testing or report their results.

3. Will new state housing plan work?

New housing construction in the Crocker Village neighborhood in Sacramento on Feb. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
New housing construction in the Crocker Village neighborhood in Sacramento on Feb. 10, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

New CalMatters podcast episode: In the latest installment of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast,” CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon dig into why California’s housing planning process has been so ineffective — and whether new penalties could make a difference. The state Housing and Community Development Department, which recently ordered cities to identify spots for about 2.5 million new homes by 2030, found the vast majority of Southern California cities’ housing plans were noncompliant — putting them at risk of losing state affordable housing funding.

CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The culture of California’s Capitol has changed a lot over the last few decades.

Teach students the truth about Native American history: State lawmakers must pass a bill that will ensure California students have access to factual accounts of Indigenous history, argues Johnny Hernandez Jr., vice chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Addressing California’s affordable housing crisis: The state’s progress on building affordable housing has been abysmal. Here are a few actions state leaders can take now, write Pedro Nava and Dion Aroner, current members of the Little Hoover Commission, and former member Cathy Schwamberger.

Other things worth your time

FOX 11, LA Times, USC Dornsife to host Tuesday Los Angeles mayoral candidate debate. // FOX 11 Los Angeles

California wild hog bill opposed by hunting organizations. // Sacramento Bee

Assembly candidate Campos draws criticism for saying his campaign, like Ukraine, is ‘fighting against the odds.’ // San Francisco Chronicle

California GOP opponents Kevin Kiley, Scott Jones differ in style. // Sacramento Bee

Why a California congressman has proposed a four-day workweek. // New York Times

SJSU sex scandal: Fallen university president could return to campus. // Mercury News

Ukrainian Consul General: ‘California is a refugee-friendly state.’ // NBC Los Angeles

Palm Springs prepares to shelter trans youth being targeted in conservative states. // KESQ

California judge plans to end Amanda Bynes’ conservatorship. // HuffPost

State and local governments can ban flavored tobacco products, court rules. // San Francisco Chronicle

Angel Stadium sale closer to being finalized after judge’s ruling. // Los Angeles Times

Gen Z renters leading rush back into Bay Area cities. // Mercury News

Long commutes, multiple roommates and friends’ couches: How UC Berkeley students live. // Mercury News

Proposal would force S.F. to provide shelter to all homeless people. // San Francisco Chronicle

L.A. sues online vacation rental company for violating city home-sharing law. // Los Angeles Times

Nobody seems to like this California wind power proposal. // Los Angeles Times

Will SoCalGas’ use of hydrogen help California fight climate change? // Los Angeles Times

California agriculture battered by drought. // Washington Post

Northern California may see 90-degree weather a month early. // Sacramento Bee

Ancient DNA could help California tribe get federal recognition. // Science

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...