For the second time in just over a month, the Ralphs/Food 4 Less division of The Kroger Co. plans to close underperforming stores in the wake of a municipal mandate for grocery worker hazard pay due to COVID-19.
Plans call for Ralphs supermarkets at 9616 West Pico Blvd. and 3300 West Slauson Ave. and the Food 4 Less discount grocery store at 5420 West Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles to be shut on May 15. L.A.-based Ralphs announced the move this week, noting that the three stores will remain open and operational for 60 days. Store representatives will meet with affected associates to assist with the transition, and the company said it will comply with contractual commitments and consider transfer requests.
On March 3, the Los Angeles City Council finalized an emergency ordinance that requires grocery and drug store operators with more than 300 employees to give non-managerial associates hazard pay of another $5 per hour for at least 120 days. The measure, backed by L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, aims to compensate frontline workers for added exposure to COVID-19 in their extra efforts to clean stores and stock shelves during the pandemic.
In early February, The Kroger Co. said it plans to shut one Ralphs and one Food 4 Less store in Long Beach, Calif., on April 17 because of a new municipal law that temporariliy mandates $4 extra hourly pay for grocery workers due to the pandemic. Two weeks later, the company announced that two Quality Food Centers (QFC) stores in Seattle are slated to be closed on April 24 following a similar hazard pay law enacted by the city. The affected Long Beach and Seattle stores were described as underperforming.
According to Ralphs/Food 4 Less, the L.A. City Council mandate will add $20 million in operating costs over the 120-day period and make it “financially unsustainable” to run the three low-performing stores. The company noted that the ordinance requires certain types of employers to provide extra pay for frontline workers, but not all companies with frontline staff. Ralphs and Food 4 Less are providing the $5 added hourly pay to all associates, including those in the three locations due to close and the division’s other 65 L.A. stores.
“Ralphs and Food 4 Less provide affordable, fresh groceries, good and stable jobs with growth opportunities to thousands of Los Angeles residents, and proudly support local community organizations across the city. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles City Council disregarded their own Economic Impact Report by not considering that grocery stores — even in a pandemic — operate on razor-thin profit margins in a very competitive landscape,” Ralphs/Food 4 Less said in a statement. “It’s never our desire to close a store, but when you factor in the increased costs of operating during COVID-19, consistent financial losses at these three locations, and an extra pay mandate that will cost nearly $20 million over the next 120 days, it becomes impossible to operate these three stores.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union blasted the Kroger division’s plans to close the three Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores, noting that frontline grocery store associates in L.A. and nationwide continue to face a high risk from coronavirus. UFCW International reported that, among its grocery store members, at least 139 have died from COVID-19 and more than 32,200 have been infected or exposed to the virus.
“Kroger’s action today is a cruel attack on essential workers and threatens the food supply for California communities devastated by the explosion of COVID-19 infections in recent months. Essential workers in grocery stores are putting their health at risk every day to make sure families can put food on the table, and city leaders are stepping up to ensure they have the hazard pay they have earned,” UFCW International President March Perrone stated.
“Hazard pay is not just about recognizing the health risks grocery workers face,” Perrone added. “It’s about making sure that these essential workers have the support they need to keep our grocery stores safe for customers and ensure all our families have the food we need as the pandemic continues.”
L.A.-based UFCW Local 770 reported that Kroger’s plan to close the two Ralphs and one Food 4 Less store in the city will eliminate 250 jobs. Citywide, the ordinance lifts pay for more than 26,000 grocery and drug retail workers, the union said.
“This company took in $2.6 billion in profits last year alone. Some people won in the pandemic, most lost. Kroger clearly won and now, faced with sharing their windfall with their employees, they chose instead to destroy 250 families’ lives in the middle of a pandemic,” according to UFCW 770 President John Grant.
When the L.A. City Council approved the hazard pay measure last week, UFCW 770 members said grocery and drug retail workers are still getting infected and dying as the pandemic enters its second year.
“I tested positive for COVID in January of this year. Unfortunately, all my family came down with the virus. As essential workers, we are still dealing with health and safety issues in the stores,” commented Celeste Ruiz, who works at a Food 4 Less store in Los Angeles. “Employers can clearly afford a temporary premium. These chains crying poverty after a year of increased profit is hard to stomach. They have gotten away for too long without listening to us. Workers need hazard pay, and if corporations keep ignoring us, we are grateful elected officials are listening.”
Through March 3, more than 5,800 UFCW 770 members had contracted COVID-19, according to the union.
“We applaud the Los Angeles City Council members for doing the right thing and recognize the sacrifices our members do everyday to serve their communities during a prolonged global pandemic,” Grant said in a statement when the ordinance was approved. “It’s unconscionable to see how grocery corporations have doubled their profits during the pandemic — with Ralphs and Albertsons alone raking in $6.8 billion in profits — while they still refuse to compensate the frontline workers making this windfall possible.”
Ralphs/Food 4 Less said vaccinating frontline staff will be more effective in creating a safer working environment. Through March 10, almost 20% of Ralphs and Food 4 Less associates have received their first dose or have been fully vaccinated, the company reported. COVID-19 immunization clinics for associates are kicking off this week in Los Angeles.
Under program announced last month by Kroger, and Ralphs and Food 4 Less are offering a one-time payment of $100 to associates who get full doses of the COVID-19 vaccine (two shots for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, one shot for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
“We are focused on and stand ready to work with state and local governments to prioritize vaccine distribution to frontline workers, like our associates, as quickly as possible,” Ralphs/Food 4 Less stated. “This week in Los Angeles, we are hosting three vaccine clinics for associates, with additional events to be hosted in the following weeks. Prioritizing vaccinations — not arbitrary mandates for extra pay — is what will keep frontline workers protected.”
Ralphs/Food 4 Less added that associates in L.A. currently receive an average hourly wage of $18 and, including health care coverage and pension benefits, the total compensation amounts to $24 an hour. Overall, the company said, The Kroger Co. has invested $2.5 billion to both reward associates and implement dozens of safety measures, including $1 billion to secure pension benefits. The company also issued $50 million in rewards to frontline associates in announcing the COVID vaccine payment.
Overall, Ralphs has 188 stores and 20,000 employees in Southern California and the state’s Central Coast region. The Food 4 Less/Foods Co price-impact, warehouse-format grocery chain has more than 12,000 associates in 129 stores under the Food 4 Less banner in Southern California, Illinois and Indiana and the Foods Co banner in Central and Northern California.