As parts of the country reopen for business amid ongoing coronavirus concerns, the debate about “hero” or “hazard’’ pay for supermarket workers is getting pushed to the forefront.
Kroger-owned QFC and Fred Meyer have confirmed they will be ending the $2 hourly bonus added to employee wages by the end of next week after company officials told employees in internal bulletins recently to expect the extra money to be discontinued. Other supermarket chains, including Safeway and Albertson’s, have yet to decide end dates for their $2 hourly bonus plans, while Walmart’s plan for some associates is due to expire in two weeks.
“In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as our world responds and recovers,” QFC spokeswoman Tiffany Sanders said in confirming that the company’s “Hero Bonus,’’ enacted March 29, will end May 16. “Our commitment is that we will continue to listen and be flexible in order to make decisions that balance what is best for our associates, customers, communities and the sustainability of our business.’’
Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffrey Temple confirmed that the chain will also end its bonus pay program on May 16.
In a private bulletin to staffers issued May 1 and reviewed by The Seattle Times, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen thanked workers for playing a critical role during a challenging time and said he is beginning to see “a slow return to normal in many areas of our business and in businesses across the country.’’ McMullen said the hero bonus through May 16 “is expected to be the final extension.’’
“As consumer behavior stabilizes and our latest safety measures are implemented, we can begin to consider which practices will continue in the future,” he told employees. “Some habits, including wearing a mask and physical distancing, likely will continue for some time while others will be phased out.’’
He did not go into detail about what the phasing out might entail.
In response to Kroger’s announcement, grocery workers’ unions are calling on the public to support employees in California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming by asking Kroger to maintain the extra $2 an hour in pay. They also want the public to join them in pressuring the company to improve store safety practices and provide coronavirus testing to all employees as the new coronavirus continues to impact local communities. Unions represent 55,000 Kroger workers in those five states, and more than 13,000 in Washington alone.
“We have been working hard from day one of this crisis, putting our own health at risk to serve our community, and now Kroger’s response is to say that they are going to take away our pay,” Chuck Svac, a member of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 21 and employed at the Fred Meyer store in Port Orchard, said in a release. “Meanwhile in many stores they are still dropping the ball on limiting the number of people in the store at one time to allow proper social distancing.”
Steve Chandler, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 38 in Everett, said in a release: “We will continue to recognize and support the frontline workers through this COVID-19 crisis and beyond and demand that their employer do the same by continuing to pay the $2.00/hr ‘HERO’ pay and provide a safe working environment for these workers.
“These workers have proven themselves as dedicated employees of Kroger which is reflected in them tirelessly serving the customers on a daily basis.”
Cincinnati-based Kroger was one of the last major supermarket chains to introduce some type of bonus or hazard pay. Safeway, Albertson’s, Walmart, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods had already done so in prior weeks after employees expressed concern about customers and staffers spreading the coronavirus and their fear of coming to work.
Sara Osborne, a spokeswoman for Safeway and Albertson’s, said Friday: “At this point, there is no firm end date for our ‘Appreciation Pay.’ ’’
Walmart’s ecommerce-fulfillment employees are receiving a $2 an hour raise through at least May 25, but the company has yet to decide whether it will be extended. The company last week provided employees a onetime bonus, adding up to $1.9 million for its Washington-based workers and $180 million nationwide.
At Seattle-based PCC Community Markets, the nation’s largest community-owned chain of food markets, a $2 hourly bonus has been in place since March 15 and was due to end Saturday. But PCC spokeswoman Kristen Woody said the company decided Friday to extend it until May 16 and will continue re-evaluating it on a weekly basis.
In her statement to The Seattle Times confirming the QFC and Fred Meyer decision to end bonus pay, spokeswoman Sanders mentioned that Kroger has invested more than $700 million toward employee bonuses and to protect them and customers.
She said the protective measures include gloves and face coverings for every associate, plexiglass shields at checkout stands, floor decals for social distancing and emergency leave for associates diagnosed with COVID-19. By mid-May, she added, Kroger hopes to offer coronavirus testing to employees based on symptoms and medical need.