For Grocery Workers, a Charity Fund but No More Hero Pay

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland September 11, 2020
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For Grocery Workers, a Charity Fund but No More Hero Pay

​To some, they're still heroes: On Sept. 1, United Way and the family-owned winery Kendall-Jackson announced a new relief fund for grocery workers to recognize those on the front lines of the food system.

But the same week, unionized grocery workers were staging protests in a dozen states for a return of the bonus pay that major grocery chains instituted in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and allowed to expire midsummer.

The workers said they still face the risk of exposure in stores and cited numbers from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) showing that at least 130 grocery workers have died from COVID-19, and more than 14,000 have been infected or exposed to the coronavirus.

And yet, with panic-buying over, shelves stocked with toilet paper, shoppers wearing masks and the rest of the economy slowly reopening, the initial outpouring of gratitude and concern for supermarket cashiers and stockers seems to be fading from memory.

"The workers kind of blended into the background before, but that changed with the pandemic. Customers were worried and saw that [grocery workers] were providing something they needed when everyone else was staying home," said Françoise Carré, research director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "I don't have the sense this awareness has remained."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Changing Incentives for Employers

Along with public perceptions, employer incentives have changed from six months ago, said Carré, who has written extensively about the retail sector with Chris Tilly, professor and chair at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs's Department of Urban Planning.

Six months ago, as quarantine-bound shoppers were flooding supermarkets, grocers scrambled to hire new workers while also convincing nervous employees to stay on the job. Kroger, the nation's largest grocery chain, added 100,000 employees during this period.

To continue staffing their stores, major grocery chains, including Kroger, Albertsons and Whole Foods, added pandemic pay amounting to about $2 per hour.

But just two months later, with high unemployment and reduced pandemic fear, most grocers decided they no longer needed to offer bonuses and allowed them to lapse. "I was surprised at how quickly they [the bonuses] stopped," Carré said. (Some smaller grocers, such as Iowa-based Fareway Stores Inc., continue to pay out pandemic-related bonuses. And Trader Joe's said it will maintain a $2 hourly boost for employees through the end of the year.)

Kroger said it remains committed to rewarding workers, but, instead of offering more bonuses, it plans to gradually raise wages as it intended to do before the pandemic hit.

"We had planned on incrementally investing $500 million a year in wages," Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told Cincinnati news station WCPO. "This year, that'll end up being $800 million, and that's brought our average hourly rate to higher than $15. When you include the value of our benefits, that takes it up north of $20 an hour."

COVID-19 Could Accelerate Technology Shift

The COVID-19 crisis comes in the middle of a fundamental shift toward more automation and online ordering in grocery retail. In fact, the pandemic is likely to accelerate that change.

Retail analysts said that in the near future, customers may order ahead for most items and shop in person to choose products like produce, with the goal to be in and out of the store quickly. In addition, self-checkout stations will become more common.

There will be fewer in-store jobs, but those that remain could be more specialized and better compensated, wrote Steve Hunt for Retail Information Systems News. Hunt is chief expert of work and technology at SAP, a global supply chain management software company.

"Employees should be considered as experts who engage, advise and educate customers throughout the shopping experience," he said. "This new paradigm can be established by providing employees with ongoing, meaningful training and translating skill growth into adequate pay and benefits."

Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group and a consultant to retailers, noted that supermarket jobs were once considered careers with middle-class earning potential. But as discount sellers like Walmart moved into grocery sales, supermarkets shifted to employing part-time workers and offering lower pay to compete.

Now the grocery landscape is bifurcated, Flickinger said, with some large discounters such as Costco and BJ's, as well as smaller retailers such as Trader Joe's and Aldi, paying higher wages—and seeing higher productivity as a result.

"Hero pay is the lowest cost for the highest return on investment," Flickinger said. "It also carries over a halo of respect among the customers, understanding that the workers in the stores are literally first responders and taking on incredible risk."

Protests and Grievances over End of Bonus Pay

In July, UFCW Local 21 based in Seattle filed grievances under its master contract against grocers Fred Meyer, Albertsons, Safeway, Haggen and others because of cut hazard pay. "The Employer unilaterally decided to eliminate or modify the Hazard/Appreciation pay. In doing so, Local 21 believes the Employer has violated numerous terms of the parties' labor agreements, including but not limited to the Recognition, Wage classification provisions and Appendices, and Just Cause," union officials wrote.

A California Winery Offers Relief

In the meantime, grocery workers will have the benefit of a relief fund established by Kendall-Jackson winery, which made an initial contribution of $200,000 and pledged $2 million over 10 years. The winery is calling on other wine distributers to get involved as well, said Maggie Curry, director of marketing for Kendall-Jackson. 

"The average American is highly aware of the luxury many of us had with COVID," Curry said. "We were able to buckle down and stay home, but it became very clear to us that wasn't the way with grocery workers." The winery looked for an existing fund to donate to, but, finding none, it decided to create one with United Way.

Applications for grants open Oct. 1, and qualifying workers can receive cash cards worth up to $250.  Curry said the requirements for applying are simple: just a picture of a recent paycheck and identification, plus a couple of sentences about the applicant's needs.

In addition, United Way will connect grocery workers to assistance networks that might point the way to other resources in the community, Curry said.

"This was a way for us to give back to the people who are really an extension of our company," she said.

Related SHRM Articles:

Should Employers Pay Hazard Premiums During the Pandemic?, SHRM Online, August 2020

Coronavirus: Boom and Bust Across Retail, SHRM Online, March 2020


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