On March 31, 2020, Kroger, the nation's largest supermarket chain announced a $2 per hour pay increase for all frontline employees. Kroger called this increase a "hero bonus," intended to compensate employees for risk and stress of working in a supermarket during a pandemic.
"We will continue to support you, and your families, during this difficult time. We care about your physical, your financial, and importantly, your emotional well-being — as we continue to improve our safety measures, and benefits, to support you," Kroger Senior Vice President Tim Massa said in a video about the pay increase. Two months later, in May 2020, the pandemic continued to rage but the "hero bonus" was quietly rolled back.
On Wednesday, as COVID case rates across the nation explode, more than 8,000 workers of Kroger's Colorado-based subsidiary, King Soopers, went on strike. The union representing these workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), say that King Soopers workers are underpaid, overworked, and inadequately protected.
“The companies were thriving, but our workers didn’t thrive." UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova said. "Know what our workers got? COVID. Attacked. Beat up. Spit on. Slapped. Overworked. And the company? They did great. They did absolutely great, sitting behind their desk doing their job by Zoom.”
Cordova is right that COVID, which has increased the number of meals that people eat at home, has improved Kroger's bottom line. In 2020, Kroger recorded $4.1 billion in profits — an increase of $1.1 billion from 2019. Due to "sustained food at home trends," Kroger is now projecting its profits in 2021 will be even higher.
King Soopers' management says it offered workers a fair deal which "raised starting pay to $16 per hour and bolstered health care benefits." The total package, the company claims, represented "an investment of $170 million over the next three years."
The union, in rejecting King Soopers' offers, noted that the minimum wage of $16 per hour is just 13 cents more than the minimum wage in Denver, where 14 of the 87 stores at issue are located. Over the last decade, while Kroger's profits (up 102%) and CEO pay (up 150%) increased dramatically, the inflation-adjusted pay of Kroger workers in Colorado and other regions has declined.
As a result, many Kroger employees struggle to make ends meet.
Life as a frontline worker at Kroger
A report published this week by the Economic Roundtable, underwritten by the UFCW, documented the economic struggles of Kroger employees. The report surveyed 10,287 Kroger workers in the Puget Sound region of Washington, Colorado, and Southern California. It is the "largest independent survey of retail workers that has ever been conducted in the United States."
Kroger is the sole employer for 86% of its workforce, and workers earn an average wage of $29,655. This is not a living wage nearly everywhere that Kroger operates. Two-thirds of Kroger workers "say they do not earn enough money to pay for basic expenses," like rent and groceries, on a monthly basis. 14% of Kroger workers say they are currently homeless or have been homeless in the past year.
The Economic Rountable report found, while Kroger workers are surrounded by food, "over three-quarters of Kroger workers are food insecure," which means they "cannot afford balanced and healthy food." These workers "run out of food before the end of the month, skip meals, and are hungry sometimes." (Kroger workers receive just a 10% discount "on Kroger brand groceries, which excludes fresh produce.")
During the pandemic, two-thirds of Kroger workers reported "having difficult experiences with customers" who "refused to wear masks, were verbally abusive, or refused to maintain social distance." About one-quarter of of Kroger workers "were confronted by customers who threatened violence" and one-fifth reported a violent incident in their store.
Kroger's CEO Rodney McMullen, at home or at Kroger's corporate headquarters in Cincinnati, was insulated from this chaos. But McMullen received a compensation package worth $22 million in 2020, about 909 times the median Kroger worker.
Why Kroger workers feel pressure to work sick
When Kroger’s “hero pay” was first rolled out, it was described by the company as a recognition “that this crisis is far from over.” The company explained the $2 increase was warranted because its hourly employees were "working tirelessly on the frontlines to ensure everyone has access to affordable, fresh food and essentials during this national emergency."
By May 2020, Kroger sunset its hazard pay. At the time of this decision, the seven-day average of daily new cases hovered around 25,000. The company defended itself in a statement to Popular Information: “In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as we all work together to gradually and safely reopen the economy.”
But as cases continued to surge, Kroger seems determined to not reinstate hazard pay. In February 2021, the company announced that it was shuttering two stores in the Seattle area because the city passed an ordinance requiring large grocery businesses to pay workers an additional $4 per hour during the pandemic. It did the same in the City of Long Beach after a similar ordinance requiring a $4 per hour pay increase for grocery workers was passed.
As of this past Monday, the seven-day average for cases in the U.S. topped 740,594 cases per day. And still, Kroger has not reinstated its hazard pay.
In March 2020, Kroger announced a paid sick leave policy for COVID-19. For many Kroger workers, a positive COVID test is the only circumstance in which they receive paid sick leave.
Popular Information learned from multiple Kroger employees that to access the company’s COVID sick leave now involves "nightmarish hoops." These workers say that Kroger will not accept the results of rapid tests as proof of COVID. Instead, workers are required to submit a PCR test, which is more expensive, more difficult to obtain, and can take days to receive a result. In some cases, workers are symptomatic and suspect they have COVID but, without a positive test, are pressured by management to report to work. Other workers, who are already struggling to make ends meet, don't want to risk the lost income if they ultimately test negative for COVID.
Popular Information contacted Kroger twice for a request for comment. The company did not respond.