The Kroger Co. plans to issue one-time payment of $100 to all associates who receive full doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Kroger said late Friday that it’s also providing a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points to hourly frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center workers across its 35-state market area under an additional $50 million investment. The two rewards are slated to be loaded onto associates’ loyalty cards on Feb. 11.
The one-time $100 vaccine payment will be offered to associates who get the full manufacturer-recommended coronavirus vaccination — the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two inoculations — and present proof of vaccination to their human resources representative, according to Kroger. Associates unable to receive the vaccine because of medical or religious reasons will be able to complete an educational health and safety course to get the payment.
“Since March, we have invested more than $1.5 billion to both reward our associates and to safeguard our associates and customers through the implementation of dozens of safety measures that we continue to execute today. We’ve also welcomed more than 100,000 new associates to The Kroger Family of Companies,” Tim Massa, chief people officer at Kroger. “As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, we’re increasing our investment to not only recognize our associates’ contributions, but also encourage them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as it becomes available to them to optimize their well-being as well as the community’s.”
Kroger’s COVID vaccine payment and rewards drew criticism on Friday from the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union. UFCW called the offer a “slap in the face” to the supermarket giant’s frontline workers, explaining that the company ended $2-per-hour hazard pay nearly nine months ago and, earlier this week, announced plans to close two Long Beach, Calif., stores because of a city ordinance mandating hazard pay for grocery workers.
“Kroger workers deserve free vaccinations for the risks they have faced and continue to face as COVID cases increase. This one-time payment from Kroger is appreciated, but given the way the company has treated its workers during the pandemic, it does not recognize the contribution of these essential workers to our nation or the risks they face daily,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.
“Kroger has made billions in pandemic profits this past year, but the company ruthlessly cut hazard pay for its essential grocery workers last spring,” he added. “This week, cities like Seattle and Los Angeles stepped up to restore hazard pay and require all grocery companies, including Kroger, to share their windfall profits from the pandemic with its frontline employees. We applaud these cities for recognizing the risks these workers have faced to help keep food on our tables.”
Kroger noted that it has engaged in a range of efforts to protect, compensate and support workers during the coronavirus crisis, including additional pay and special bonuses plus rewards, available to view at KrogerCovidResponse.com; COVID-19 testing based on symptoms and medical need; advocacy for frontline associates to have priority access to the vaccine; emergency leave and paid time off for associates most affected by the virus or experiencing symptoms; and health care and retirement benefits, among other measures.
Cincinnati-based Kroger said it has been investing to raise the wages of frontline associates for the past several years, including an incremental $800 million in increases from 2018 to 2020 under the company’s Restock Kroger strategy — $300 million more than the originally planned. The company reported that the investment lifted the average wage rate to more than $15 per hour and, including its comprehensive HR and retirement benefits, the average hourly rate exceeds $20. Kroger added that, in November, it also invested nearly $1 billion to stabilize associates’ pensions.
On the safety side, Kroger said it has required and supplied face masks for associates and urged them to stay home if ill; mandated that customers to wear masks in stores; and continued to limit customer count in stores and use plexiglass barriers and floor decals to promote social distancing.
“We know that the most effective defense against this pandemic comes in the form of the COVID-19 vaccine and the continuation of the rigorous safety precautions we’ve established across our stores, manufacturing facilities and supply chain,” stated Kroger Chief Medical Officer Marc Watkins. “We are strongly encouraging all customers and associates to receive the vaccine to curb the spread of COVID-19, and we’ll do all we can to ensure they have access as soon as it’s available.”
UFCW’s Perrone noted, however, that Kroger store associates and other retailers’ grocery workers still face a significant threat from COVID-19 while on the job. The union cited a report last month on more than 300 Kroger worker coronavirus cases in Houston.
According to UFCW, at least 134 grocery workers have died from COVID-19 and 28,700 have been infected or exposed to the virus among its membership nationwide.
“If Kroger really cares about its employees,” Perrone commented, “the company must share the profits the pandemic has generated with all of its frontline grocery workers across the country and ensure that they not only have free vaccine access, but that every Kroger store takes immediate action to prevent future COVID outbreaks as the pandemic continues.”
Kroger, meanwhile, has been working with public health officials and community partners to help distribute the COVID-19 vaccine around the country. The company said that, as of Feb. 5, its Kroger Health arm has administered over 200,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to essential health care workers, skilled-nursing facility employees and residents, and some elderly populations. Kroger Health also is hiring to fill a need for 1,000 more health care personnel, including pharmacy technicians, to support coronavirus vaccine operations and administration.