Supermarket sick

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As the coronavirus spreads within the United States, Kroger — the country's largest supermarket chain  — continues to maintain sick leave policies that incentivize workers to show up ill. The company operates over 2700 supermarkets under a variety of brands, including Harris Teeter, Dillons, and Ralphs, and employs 453,000 people. 

Popular Information spoke to numerous Kroger employees around the country. Policies vary by location, but many Kroger employees report receiving no paid sick leave at all. Other employees are offered sick leave, but with significant restrictions that limit its availability.

The policies of grocery stores are particularly important because, no matter how severe the coronavirus outbreak becomes in the United States, they cannot close. And people cannot avoid close proximity to grocery store employees.

An assistant front end department leader, who works in Kroger's Delta Division, which includes West Tennessee, parts of Arkansas, and Mississippi, told Popular Information that the job does not include sick leave. The Kroger employee has been working with the company for two decades. The employee does receive vacation days but, per the terms of the union contract, vacation days must be booked in advance and therefore, cannot be used to receive pay for sick time. There have been no adjustments to this policy since the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

Another Kroger employee has been working full-time in Tennessee for less than two months. The employee will eventually be eligible for a week of paid sick leave — but not until working for Kroger for a full year. Until then, there is no pay for time missed due to illness. 

A Kroger employee in Colorado, who works for the company's King Soopers brand, said that paid sick leave is available after a year of employment but, even after that, the company does not pay employees until "the second full sick day." This policy is spelled out in the union contract, which the employee shared with Popular Information. 

A Kroger employee in Seattle, who has worked for the company for about six weeks, was not feeling well and, as a precaution, stayed home last week. The employee shared his experience with the company.

I work at a Kroger grocery store north of Seattle...[I]t’s been nuts. I came down with a cold last week, self-isolated and asked if they would pay me for the time I was scheduled. Nope. I hadn’t earned enough hours and people come into work sick all the time, per a manager...Saw [doctor] this morning. [I] still have cold (not Covid) and he told me to self-isolate until I was better. But if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. It’s a [minimum] wage cashier job.

This employee, who is living "paycheck to paycheck," will eventually be eligible for sick leave, but not until working for Kroger for 90 days.

Many part-time employees at Kroger told Popular Information they are not offered any paid sick leave. A Kroger employee in Idaho, who has worked part-time at the deli counter since July 2019, does not receive paid sick leave. A Kroger employee in North Carolina, who has been working part-time as a cashier five years, does not receive paid sick leave. (The North Carolina employee reports that the vast majority of employees at the store are part-time.) A Kroger employee in Georgia, who works part-time as a cashier, does not receive paid sick leave. 

Media contacts for Kroger and more than a dozen subsidiary brands did not respond to a request for comment.

But on Sunday, three days after Popular Information's first inquiry, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen revealed that two employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The employees worked at a King Soopers store in Colorado and at a Fred Meyer in Washington. Both stores remained open. 

McMullen will still not provide all employees with sick leave. But he did activate Kroger's "Emergency Leave Guidelines," which will provide two weeks of paid time off for employees that test positive for COVID-19 or are placed under "mandatory quarantine" by a health care provider or public health official.

Neither of these measures is sufficient to protect staff and the public. There are few coronavirus tests available — the most accurate figures available show less than 30,000 have been conducted nationwide. And, as the world faces a pandemic, few people will be able to be evaluated by a doctor and formally placed under quarantine. In other words, it is not a substitute for giving people the ability to stay home if they feel sick. 

Emergency sick leave legislation exempts Kroger and other large employers

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed emergency legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation immediately grants some workers the right to ten working days of paid sick leave. Workers can also use the leave, reimbursed at two-thirds of their wage rate, to take care of children whose schools have closed. Under the legislation, part-time workers are entitled to the same leave for the number of hours they typically work in a two-week period. 

But employers with more than 500 employees are exempt. (Employers with less than 50 employees can also apply for an exemption.) 

The original legislation, introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura (D-CT) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), would have required "all employers to provide... 14 days of paid sick leave, available immediately at the beginning of a public health emergency, including the current coronavirus crisis." But those provisions were stripped out at the insistence of the White House, which negotiated a "deal" with Congressional Democrats. Now, around 80% of American workers are not covered by the paid sick leave guarantee.

It's unclear why large employers are exempted. The small to medium-sized businesses that are required to provide paid sick leave will receive tax credits to defray the costs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that she doesn't "support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing." But the legislation could have required large employers to provide paid sick leave without a government subsidy. (The bill has not yet passed the Senate because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) inexplicably recessed the body until Monday evening.) 

After a report in Popular Information last week, Darden, the parent company of Olive Garden and other large restaurant chains, announced it would provide paid sick leave to all 170,000 of its restaurant employees

There appears to be the assumption that large employers already provide or will begin to provide substantial paid sick leave. But, as Kroger illustrates, that is not true. And Kroger is not an isolated case. 

Luxury retail with a bargain-basement sick leave policy

In an email to customers, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus said that its top priority is safety, and emphasized the company's "love" for staff and shoppers:

Love for our customers and associates is at the heart of everything we do. Your safety, comfort, and well-being are our highest priorities. 

In accordance with the guidelines from the CDC, we've asked all associates to remain vigilant in following proper hygiene. We've also asked associates who feel ill, are sick, are experiencing any coronavirus-related symptom, or who need to care for a family member experiencing symptoms to stay home and seek appropriate medical attention. 

What Neiman Marcus doesn't mention is that, while the company does offer paid sick leave, it does not pay its workers for the first day of missed work — except in states where such a delay is prohibited by law. Popular Information learned of the policy from three Neiman Marcus employees who work in different areas of the country, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and California. (The policy is not in place in California because state law prohibits it.)

Neiman Marcus has over 14,000 employees across 42 locations.  

The company did not respond to a request for comment from Popular Information. 

The Coronavirus Corporate Accountability Project

It's clear that Congress will not require companies with over 500 employees to provide ten days of paid sick leave. But the companies that refuse to do so are putting their employees and the public at risk. And we can hold them accountable

That's why Popular Information is starting the COVID-19 Corporate Accountability Project. If you work at a company with more than 500 employees that is not providing immediate access to ten days of paid sick leave to full-time workers — or the equivalent to part-time employees — please fill out this form.

The results of the project will be published in future editions of Popular Information. 

Photo credit: virginiaretail via Flickr

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