Kroger has announced a $130 million "Thank You Pay" for associates. The one-time payment averages out to $400 for qualified full-time associates and $200 for qualified part-time associates and will be paid out in two installments on May 30 and June 18. This announcement comes after the national grocery chain received pushback this week from both employees and their union representatives for discontinuing a $2 per hour hazard pay — which was called "hero pay" or "hero bonuses."
As Salon reported on Wednesday, Jonathan Williams, the communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, said the union — which represents Kroger associates — was calling on the company to extend the bonus indefinitely until the end of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The "hero pay" was enacted in April and is set to expire on May 17th. It was preceded by an "Appreciation Pay" bonus in March, which amounted to $300 for every full-time associate and $150 for every part-time associate.
"As much as Kroger wishes it were so, this is not a normal time and we can't return to normal right now," Williams had said. "As some members have pointed out, while we're still being required to wear a mask at work, there is still a hazard. There's still a risk and the dangers are very real. So, if we were 'heroes' last week, why aren't we heroes next week? Nothing has changed."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the nation at large has begun to recognize grocery store workers as essential employees, due both to their integral position in America's food system — the rash of panic-buying in early March, which resulted in empty shelves and purchasing limits on some items, clearly illuminated what food access would look like without them — and the consistent, customer-facing nature of their jobs.
The latter has put them at distinct risk for contracting the virus; in April, four Michigan Kroger employees who had contracted the novel coronavirus died, while a Tennessee Kroger employee died from coronavirus complications on May 12.
And as Salon reported in April, as demand for Kroger's curbside delivery option had skyrocketed, some employees said concerns for their own health were at an all-time high, as well. They described navigating crowds — filled with unmasked people who weren't abiding by social distancing recommendations — to fulfill increased orders, which were then taken back to cramped fulfillment rooms.
As long as Kroger workers are putting their health at risk in these ways, Williams said on Wednesday, they should continue to receive hazard compensation — a stance the union has kept in spite of the new "thank you" bonuses.
"While we welcome any increase in compensation, we continue to call on Kroger to extend the $2.00 per hour 'hero pay' premium indefinitely until this crisis is over," union representatives said in a May 16 statement.
"While other industries are suffering during this pandemic, Kroger is thriving," the statement continued. "Thanks to our hard working members, same-store sales were up a whopping 30% in March alone, and we expect to see elevated numbers for April, May, and into June. Around the same time Kroger announced it plans to cancel 'hero pay,' the company also reported that Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen received a 21% raise. We also deserve to share in the success that our hard work has created for this company."
And it seems that in Kroger's rush to return to business as normal, evidenced by stripping workers of ongoing hazard pay despite continued health risks, it raises the question of how essential they view their essential employees.
In a release from Kroger, McMullen said as the country moves toward reopening, the company will continue "to safeguard our associates' health and well-being and recognize their work."
"At the same time, we will continue running a sustainable business that provides steady employment and opportunities to learn and grow for over half a million associates," McMullen said.
The company has, however, coordinated with the union and agreed upon various elements of a suite of new policies UFCW has recommended to protect workers and customers, including: continued implementation of customer capacity limits and special shopping hour for senior shoppers and higher-risk customers; continued plexiglass partitions and physical distancing floor decals; expanding contact-free payment solutions like Scan, Bag, Go and Kroger Pay; and offering a no-contact delivery option, low-contact pickup service and ship-to-home orders.