The Kroger Co. said it will evaluate changing conditions and employee needs after eight union locals called for the supermarket giant to further extend “hero bonuses” for frontline hourly workers amid the coronavirus crisis.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 7, 21, 324, 367, 555, 770, 1439 and Teamsters Local 38 said late yesterday that Kroger Co. grocery stores across the West notified associates that the company plans to stop paying the $2-per-hour bonus on May 17. They have now appealed to the public through the social media hashtag #EssentialHeroes to urge Kroger to maintain the COVID-19 bonus pay as well as improve store safety practices and provide testing for the virus to all employees.

The seven UFCW locals represent more than 55,000 workers at Kroger Co. stores — including such chains as Ralphs, Food 4 Less, King Soopers, Fred Meyer and QFC — in California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

Cincinnati-based Kroger said Friday that, so far during the pandemic, it has invested more than $700 million to reward associates and protect employees, customers and the communities it serves. Over 80,000 workers nationwide — including displaced employees from hard-hit industry sectors such as restaurants, hotels and foodservice distributors — also have been offer jobs at the company to support retail, e-commerce, manufacturing and logistics operations, the retailer noted.

“Our temporary ‘hero bonus’ is scheduled to end in mid-May. In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as our country recovers,” Kroger said in an email statement on Friday. “Our commitment is that we will continue to listen and be responsive, empowering us to make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business. We continuously evaluate employee compensation and benefits packages.”

On March 31, Kroger announced a “hero bonus” of $2 an hour for all frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center associates for time worked from March 29 to April 18. That was later extended to May 2 and then mid-May. The company also paid out a one-time bonus of $300 to full-time associates and $150 to part-time associates on April 3. Kroger noted that its average hourly wage of $15 rises to more than $20 when benefits such as health care are factored in.

“We are committed to the continued support of our associates’ safety and mental well-being,” Kroger stated, “and we’ll continue our ongoing discussions on these critical aspects with the UFCW.”

As of May 8, UFCW Local 770 reported about 200 COVID-19 cases among its 30,000-plus member base, which includes over 20,000 grocery workers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties in California.

The UFCW locals, however, contend that the COVID-19 threat to grocery workers remains high — even as businesses begin to reopen in many states — and Kroger shouldn’t cancel extra pay for employees whom its customers depend on to buy food and supplies. The locals also are urging Kroger to “more effectively” limit the shopper count in stores to enable six-foot physical distancing and to have all customers and associates wear masks.

“With all eyes on essential workers during the pandemic, grocery corporations were quick to capitalize on the good PR of raising wages,” John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “But they cannot justify taking them away, especially since they have continued to do business while so many other businesses are closed and their profits are record high.”

As of May 8, UFCW 770 reported about 200 COVID-19 cases among its membership, which includes over 20,000 grocery workers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties in California plus another 10,000 members in the retail food and pharmacy, meatpacking and food processing, laboratory and cannabis sectors.

“The pandemic and its effects on the way people grocery shop and feed their families is not changing, so why is Kroger eliminating extra pay for workers they call heroes?” commented UFCW 770 member Julian Aguayo, a night crew stocker at Food 4 Less in Hollywood, Calif. “The essential role we play is not changing, why is our pay?”

Denver-based UFCW Local 7 said 39 members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 7, and on April 10 one member — a courtesy clerk at a King Soopers supermarket in Brush, Colo. — died from the virus.

“For more than two months, these workers have put their lives and their families lives at risk to protect and serve the communities they live and work in,” stated Kim Cordova, president of UFCW 7. “Taking away this hero pay from these essential workers disregards their continued heroism as they serve their communities in crisis.”

Overall, UFCW 7 represents more than 21,000 grocery workers, including over 14,000 Kroger Co. workers in Colorado and Wyoming.

“Just because states start to reopen doesn’t mean the dangers from COVID are less severe,” Cordova added. “Instead, grocery workers’ jobs become more dangerous as customer traffic increases. We’re already seeing a startling uptick in the number of essential grocery workers testing positive for COVID-19. These heroes provided and served their communities without hesitation. These #EssentialHeroes are asking for fair pay and safe stores.”

Kroger, though, on Friday cited a list of ways that the company is supporting and protecting associates during the pandemic, in addition to bonus pay. For example, the company said it’s offering testing to associates based on symptoms and medical need and providing emergency leave and paid time off to workers affected by the virus or experiencing symptoms. Other support includes health care coverage and retirement benefits, mental health resources, and $5 million through Kroger’s Helping Hands fund to aid associates experiencing financial hardships due to COVID-19, including childcare costs.

And on the safety side, Kroger said it is supplying all associates with face masks and encouraging them to stay home if sick, as well as urging customers to wear masks in when in stores or use online services. The company, too, said it has continued to limit the number of shoppers in stores at a given time, installed shields and physical distancing floor decals in stores, expanded contactless payment options (such as Scan, Bag, Go and Kroger Pay) and introduced a no-contact option for online grocery delivery, along with low-contact pickup service and a ship-to-home offering.

Kroger also announced in mid-April that it has joined with UFCW International to call on federal and state government to classify grocery store workers emergency first respondersduring the coronavirus pandemic.

“Throughout the pandemic, our top priority is to provide and maintain a safe environment for our associates and customers with open stores, comprehensive digital solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain,” Kroger stated on Friday, “so that our communities always have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials.”

Source: Supermarket News