Cindy Wilbur has worked for Fred Meyer, on and off, for 20 years. For the last two years, she’s worked at the store in Federal Way, walking the aisles, filling grocery orders — nine at a time — for customers who, out of convenience or COVID-19 concern, have opted to do their shopping online.
Wilbur makes $18.10 an hour. But she’s usually only scheduled for 20 hours a week.
“I am three months behind on rent and I’m several months behind in my power bill,” Wilbur said. “I have massive anxiety every week when I go to open that check because I know what I need to survive and to eat and I rarely make it.”
A new survey of more than 10,000 unionized Kroger grocery workers in the Western United States finds that 78% are like Wilbur, sometimes struggling to afford basic necessities like food and shelter. Nearly one-third of survey respondents were from Washington, where Kroger owns Fred Meyer and QFC stores.
The survey gives a glimpse into workers’ views at one of Washington’s largest private employers, a company with nearly 22,000 workers at 119 sites in Washington and whose stores are affectionately known as Freddy’s. And it comes at a time when record worker turnover across various industries and a 40-year high in inflation have left workers with at once more leverage and greater needs than in recent memory.
More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they suffered from “food insecurity,” as defined by the federal government, meaning they couldn’t afford balanced, healthful meals. Half of those, 38% of all workers surveyed, said they had very low food security or sometimes went hungry.
And 14% of the surveyed workers say they are homeless or have been homeless in the last year.
The survey was conducted by Economic Roundtable, a California-based nonprofit research group that has frequently worked with California municipal governments. The survey was funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers local unions in Washington, Colorado and Southern California.
It bills itself as the “largest independent survey of retail workers that has ever been conducted in the United States.”
Kroger is the second-largest grocer in the country, after Walmart.
The survey, released last week, got responses from more than 3,100 workers in Washington, all of whom are represented by UFCW. The numbers among only Washington respondents were broadly similar to the larger results — 75% reported being food insecure, 38% had very low food security and 13% reported being homeless now or recently.
“The thing that strikes me out of this is that over three-quarters of people who day in, day out are putting their hands on food to put into people’s grocery bags are food insecure,” said Daniel Flaming, president of Economic Roundtable and lead author on the study. “They’re going home to eat hot dogs and ramen noodles or skipping a meal or sometimes going hungry.”
Kroger did not respond to a request for comment. The company, in a statement the day after the Economic Roundtable report was published, called it misleading and issued its own report. It says the company’s Western stores pay a higher average hourly wage and benefits than the retail sector at large.
“We are proud to provide our associates not only industry-leading pay and benefits, including health care and pensions, but to also be offering upward mobility to all of our valued associates,” Tim Massa, a Kroger senior vice president, said in a news release. “The implication by the Economic Roundtable that The Kroger Family of Companies does not care about the well-being of our associates and their families is patently untrue.”
Tom Geiger, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 21 in the Seattle area, said they would be pushing for “significant improvements” when their contracts expire in May.
“The report’s findings show what we see and hear every day,” Geiger said. “Front-line essential grocery store workers are not earning enough to pay for the most basic expenses like food and housing and they are dealing with the impact and stress of COVID, short staffing and heavy workloads.”
For Wilbur, 51, the problem is largely her hours, though she’d also like a higher hourly wage.
When she started her second stint at Fred Meyer about two years ago (she’d previously worked there for 18 years, before leaving for another job), the pandemic was just beginning.
“COVID just blew up,” she said, “and everybody went from working part time to 40 hours a week.”
But since then, she said, as the store’s hiring has rebounded, they’re “cutting our hours and digging into our hours so they wouldn’t have to pay us more.”
Now she says she’s scheduled for 20 hours a week, although sometimes works up to 26, if she’s needed.
She’s been looking for a second job, but she said her irregular hours at Fred Meyer make that almost impossible
“Every single week my schedule is different, every week, every day,” she said. “It would be very difficult for me to go to an employer and say ‘I don’t know my schedule.’”
Her situation is emblematic.
More than half of the surveyed workers, 56%, said their schedule changes from week to week.
And while the survey found that 85% of Kroger workers work only at Kroger, it also found that only 35% of workers work full time.
Kroger offered its employees $2-an-hour hazard pay when the pandemic began, but ended the program after two months.
Seattle, for the last year, has mandated that large grocers give $4-an-hour hazard pay.
Kroger closed down two Seattle QFCs, in part to avoid paying the higher wages.
Federal Way had a similar policy, mandating $3 hazard pay, but it expired over the summer, after three months.
The report highlights the rising pay of Kroger executives — CEO Rodney McMullen earned more than $22 million in 2020, nearly double what he earned five years prior.
McMullen earned 909 times more than the median Kroger employee, who brought home $24,617 in 2020.
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