Once lauded as heroes of the pandemic, grocery store employees now struggle for better pay and vaccine priority
It feels like both just yesterday and forever ago that grocery stores were facing pressure to give their employees extra hazard pay for working through the chaotic checkout lines and heightened fear of the early pandemic days, when everyone who could stayed at home and outsourced their risk to minimum-wage laborers. Now, nearly a year later, in a weird and cruel twist of deja vu, new cases are six times what they were last spring, a novel — more contagious, possibly more lethal — COVID-19 variant is spreading rapidly throughout the U.S., and grocery workers are back where they started, still asking for hazard pay, plus vaccination, to boot.
The vaccine rollout has been creeping along, with an average of 1.4 million doses administered per day (at this current rate, it won’t be until mid-September that 70 percent of the U.S. population could be at least partially vaccinated, the New York Times projects). But in the majority of states, grocery workers still aren’t eligible for the vaccine. While vaccine eligibility varies from state to state, health care workers and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities were prioritized across the board first, and now most states have begun vaccinating older adults. In at least 13 states, grocery workers are eligible for the vaccine in at least some counties, the Times reports. In other states, like in Oklahoma, grocery workers are in the same vaccination phase as employees of golf courses and photography studios.
Meanwhile, more and more chains and retailers, including Trader Joe’s and Aldi’s, are paying their employees to get the vaccine. Kroger recently announced an incentive of $100 for workers who show proof that they received full doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Kroger also recently permanently closed two California stores rather than offer hazard pay to its employees, following the passing of an ordinance in Long Beach requiring large grocery store chains in the city to pay workers an extra $4 an hour for 120 days. The company ended its national “hero pay” of an extra $2 an hour last May, instead switching to one-time bonuses. With the vaccine incentive news, Kroger announced that it would spend an additional $50 million to reward workers with a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points.
“In 2020 alone, Kroger has invested well over $1.3 billion to safeguard and reward our associates and committed nearly $1 billion to secure pensions for tens of thousands of our associates across the country,” the company said in a statement, per the Times. “This is in addition to the more than $800 million the company will have invested in associate wage increases from 2018 to 2020 — which are not one-time awards but lasting wage increases.”
Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s CEO, made more than $20 million in 2019. “The median compensation of a Kroger employee that year was $26,790, or a ratio of 789 to 1, according to company filings,” the Times reports. Last year, the company authorized a new $1 billion stock buyback program.
But Kroger isn’t the only grocery chain that profited during the pandemic’s grocery boom without sustaining hazard pay. The Brookings Institution found that 13 of the largest retail and grocery companies in the country earned an additional $17.7 billion in the first three quarters of 2020, compared to 2019, but most of them barely paid extra compensation, or stopped paying it last summer. Stores like Costco, which will continue its $2 per hour hazard pay through March on top of a $15 minimum wage, and Target, which permanently raised its starting wage to $15 an hour, were the exceptions rather than the norm.
Early on in the pandemic, grocery employees were deemed “essential” and “heroes,” part of a category of often overworked and underpaid workers whose labor propped up a barely functioning society. But the more honest title may be “casualties” — of companies looking to increase their bottom line, of a public with a short-term collective memory, and most importantly, of a government that by and large failed its own people, leaving its most vulnerable and its “heroes” alike to fend for themselves.