Amid a surge in U.S. coronavirus cases, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) joined with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 7 and 21 in calling on The Kroger Co. to reinstitute hourly hazard pay and bolster safety measures for frontline employees.
In a letter sent Monday to Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen, UFCW 7, UFCW 21 and Sanders (below) claimed the supermarket retailer has relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols after phasing out $2-per-hour “hero pay” for frontline workers in mid-May. The letter was signed by Sanders, UFCW Local 7 President and UFCW International Vice President Kim Cordova, and UFCW Local 21 President Faye Guenther.
“Since Kroger stripped away hero pay, COVID-19 infections among these essential grocery store workers have exploded among our members. For example, there have been 491 positive cases, a 692% increase, and three deaths, among Local 7 members alone,” the Dec. 14 letter to McMullen said. “As recent COVID cases in Washington have reached record levels, we see cases of grocery workers on a significant rise, and several outbreaks have been reported in just the last two weeks. In some cases, these outbreaks include more than a dozen cases in only one store.”
Combined, Denver-based UFCW 7 and Seattle-based UFCW 21 represent 30,000 grocery workers at Kroger Co. stores in Colorado, Wyoming and Washington, where the retailer operates supermarkets and multi-department stores under such banners as King Soopers, City Market, Smith’s, QFC and Fred Meyer.
“Together with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, we hope and expect you are taking substantial time to work with the current and incoming administration to ensure that your grocery store essential workers are a priority for a COVID-19 vaccination,” the letter stated. “We write today to urge you to take the necessary and responsible steps to improve stores’ safety and compensate Kroger essential workers fairly by immediately reinstating hero pay ($2/hour) to all workers across the country.”
Kroger, however, noted that since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, it has implemented comprehensive safety measures for customers and employees and compensated frontline workers for their extra efforts in a difficult environment.
The Cincinnati-based company said that, since March, it has invested more than $1.3 billion to reward associates — including “appreciation pay,” “hero bonuses” and “thank you pay” — as well as increase protection from the virus. Frontline associates also were rewarded with $100 in store credit and 1,000 fuel points in September and November.
“Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, e-commerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials,” a Kroger spokesperson stated.
On March 31, Kroger announced a “hero bonus” of $2 an hour for all frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center associates for time worked from March 29 to April 18. That was later extended to May 2 and then to May 17. The company also paid out a one-time “appreciation bonus” of $300 to full-time associates and $150 to part-time associates on April 3. That was followed by $130 million in special “thank you pay” for hourly associates, with $400 going to full-time workers and $200 to part-time workers in two installments on May 30 and June 18.
In terms of employee support, Kroger has offered COVID-19 testing to associates based on symptoms and medical need and provided emergency leave and paid time off to workers affected by the virus or experiencing symptoms. Other support includes health care coverage, mental health resources and the Kroger Helping Hands fund, which aids associates experiencing financial hardships due to COVID-19, including childcare costs.
On the safety side, Kroger said it supplies all associates with face masks and protective gear and encourages them to stay home if sick. The company, too, has limited the number of shoppers in stores, installed shields and physical distancing floor decals in stores, and expanded contactless payment and e-commerce services (such as home delivery and curbside pickup).
Kroger also in April joined with UFCW International to urge federal and state governments to classify grocery store workers as emergency first responders during the pandemic.
“We continue to listen to our associates and take steps to ensure their safety and well-being,” the Kroger spokesperson said in response to the UFCW/Sanders letter. “We also continue to execute dozens of safety measures and provide support to our associates through benefits like paid emergency leave and our $15 million Helping Hands fund.”
UFCW 7 and 21 said the skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates around the country show that the threat of the virus to frontline workers has intensified, requiring hazard pay to continue. Through late afternoon on Tuesday, the United States had more than 16.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 302,000 deaths from the disease.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage our communities and stores more than ever, and as we navigate this especially hazardous winter season, it is imperative to recognize the dangers essential grocery store workers face,” the unions and Sanders said in the letter to Kroger. “Our members, your employees, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, yet these heroes are being denied the hero pay you awarded them at the beginning of the pandemic. Kroger’s employees went from heroes to zeros. As we continue to witness a severe and alarming increase in worker case numbers, store safety must significantly improve to stop the spread.”
The unions said safety measures should include enforcement of mask requirements, reinstating and enforcing strict shopper limits for social distancing in stores, and improved staffing on all shifts to enable workers to take COVID sanitation breaks for extra hand-washing and have allotted times to wipe and disinfect stores.
In its most recently reported figures, UFCW International estimated that at least 109 grocery workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 17,400 have been infected or exposed to the virus since the pandemic began.
“Every day wasted is another day our members risk contracting COVID-19 at a Kroger store. Another day, our members are not paid fairly for the dangers they face conducting essential work,” the letter said, adding, “Essential grocery store workers are heroes. They were heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, and they continue to be the unsung heroes keeping Kroger and the country moving forward.”
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