Who is dividing people?

On Sunday, Popular Information reported that Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the United States, did not offer paid sick leave to all of its employees. Many Kroger employees said they received no paid sick leave at all. Others had to wait up to a year to be eligible for paid sick leave.

Since that piece was published, I've heard from many other Kroger employees about their frustrations with the company's policies. One full-time Kroger employee reported working for the company for 15 years with no paid sick leave.

I work for Kroger and they don’t give employees paid sick leave at all in Texas. Unless you are management. Managers and Pharmacists have sick pay. I’ve been with them [for] 15 years and have never gotten paid sick leave. 

Kroger did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment by Popular Information. But on Monday, a spokesperson from Kroger sent Popular Information an email with this subject line: "Inaccurate Information Regarding Kroger Delta Division." (Kroger's Delta division includes West Tennessee, parts of Arkansas, and Mississippi. One of the employees that Popular Information interviewed works for that division.) Here is what the email said:

I have listed our associates [sic] paid leave policy below. Can you please update your story? I'd hate for your readers to have inaccurate information during a pandemic.

But the "leave policy" attached by the Kroger spokesperson was explicitly referenced in my initial article. Specifically, that Kroger will provide two weeks paid time off for people who test positive for COVID-19 or are formally ordered into quarantine. That is not paid sick leave. Few tests are available, and most people who experience symptoms will not be able to obtain a formal quarantine order. Paid sick leave would enable Kroger employees, who are on the front lines of a pandemic, to stay home if they were feeling ill without missing a paycheck.

Asked to specify what was inaccurate about Popular Information's reporting, Kroger did not respond. 

On Tuesday, Popular Information learned that Kroger would send each employee a $25 Kroger gift card. The cards will expire in 60 days. Sonya Hostetler, the president of Kroger's Nashville division, wrote in an internal message to staff that the gift cards show "how much Kroger appreciates and acknowledges you."

In a voicemail sent to 30,000 employees of Fred Meyer, a large subsidiary of Kroger that also operates Ralphs, president Dennis Gibson also touted the $25 gift cards. In the voice message, which was obtained by Popular Information, Gibson thanks workers for "showing up" during "this busy time." Gibson said he hopes the gift cards make workers realize "how much you mean to Fred Meyer, but also to our customers." There is no mention by Gibson of employees taking care of their own health or well-being. Listen:

Kroger also published a tweet with a video message from CEO Rodney McMullen, who shouts out his "incredible associates, who are working so incredibly hard..they’re providing incredible, amazing service under very difficult circumstances." McMullen, while providing his at-risk employees with $25 gift cards, doesn't mention that he was paid nearly $12 million dollars year.  

Huffington Post and other publications picked up on Popular Information's reporting. Kroger responded by attacking Popular Information, saying this newsletter was dividing the country.

In response to Popular Information’s reporting, Kroger told HuffPost that “this perspective only serves to divide people at a time when we should all be pulling together to manage this public health crisis.” 

“Right now, grocery workers are on the front-lines ensuring Americans have the food and products they need,” said Kristal Howard, head of corporate communications and media relations for the brand, in an email.

The lack of paid sick leave for all Kroger employees is not a "perspective." It is a fact. And it is a policy that puts Kroger's staff and customers at risk. 

Two Kroger workers have already tested positive for COVID-19. 

While many companies struggle to survive during the pandemic, Kroger, like other grocery stores, is doing very well. A Kroger employee tells Popular Information that, in the last week, a store in Kentucky had brought in twice as much revenue as the week of Thanksgiving, which is typically the busiest week of the year for grocery stores. The company is hiring; in Michigan alone, the company has positions at 119 stores

Kroger brought in over $122 billion in revenue last year. This year will likely be far more lucrative, as people shift from eating out to in-home cooking. But neither the danger to its staff nor the increased revenues have convinced Kroger to expand its paid sick leave policy to all its workers. 

In response to Popular Information's reporting, Nandini Jammi, one of the founders of the activist group Sleeping Giants, has launched a petition calling on Kroger to provide paid sick leave to every employee. 

Where is Congress?

The coronavirus pandemic has completely upended the lives of most Americans. It has created economic and public health challenges that need an aggressive legislative response. But Congress has not acted with a particular sense of urgency.

The House passed legislation late last week that bolsters unemployment insurance, expands nutrition assistance, and guarantees immediate access to 10 days of paid sick leave to workers at companies that have between 50 and 500 employees. (Larger employers, like Kroger and Amazon, are exempt.)

But, by the time the House passed the legislation last Friday, the Senate had already recessed for a long weekend. McConnell couldn't miss the chance to attend a swearing-in of a federal judge with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The Senate has still not considered the House bill. 

The Senate is now considering a much larger stimulus package to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus. But the House has now recessed until next week. So, despite a broad consensus that action is necessary, it's unclear when any legislation can pass. 

I'll have more on the contours of the stimulus bill, which are still emerging, in a future edition of Popular Information.

Thanks for reading!

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