Grocery store workers call for hazard pay, customers to wear masks as more fall victim to COVID-19

Union president: At least 68 workers have died from coronavirus
Posted at 3:15 PM, May 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-23 11:32:59-04

INDIANAPOLIS — At least 68 grocery store workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 10,000 have been sickened, the president of a union that represents food workers said Wednesday.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in grocery, meatpacking, food processing and other industries, said in a video press conference that included four Kroger Company employees that most of the deaths and illnesses were concentrated in the New York/New Jersey region, but that the numbers did not include workers at non-union grocery stores.

Perrone said the number of grocery store workers that have died or become ill has doubled in the past five weeks. He added that none of America's largest grocery store companies, including Kroger, Trader Joe's, Walmart or Whole Foods, have released internal estimates of the number of workers that have died or become sick after being exposed to the coronavirus.

“In any given day, these workers must interact with thousands of customers walking in and out of these supermarkets," Perrone said. "The threat of this virus is real across every grocery store in America.”

UFCW International Union President Marc Perrone gives a video press conference on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Perrone and the grocery store workers all emphasized the need for hazard pay and for customers to wear masks while they shop.

"We deserve hazard pay until I no longer have to put on a mask to work at a grocery store," Kristine Holtham, a meat department worker at a Kroger location in Lansing, Michigan, said.

Perrone said some of the large grocery store chains and food retail companies, including Amazon, Kroger and Whole Foods, have announced they plan to end hazard pay programs. Kroger has paid employees an additional $2 an hour of what it called "hero pay."

"The spread of the virus hasn’t stopped, so neither should the protections or hero pay that our families need," Debbie Griffin, a Kroger cashier in Lawrenceburg, said.

RELATED | Kroger lets workers keep extra ‘Hero Pay’ after company sent collection letters

A statement from Kroger said the company offered special pay in March, April and May. The company now offers $130 million in "thank you pay" for hourly employees. The one-time bonuses, which will be paid in two installments on May 30 and June 18, will provide $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-timers.

“As the country moves toward reopening, we will continue to safeguard our associates’ health and well-being and recognize their work," Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said in a statement. "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."

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement the company has paid an extra $800 million to workers during the pandemic.

“To thank employees and help meet increased demand, we’ve paid our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment," Amazon's statement read. "With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour. We’re proud that our minimum wage is more than what most others offer even after their temporary increases in recent months, and we hope they’ll do the right thing for the long term and bring their minimum pay closer to ours.”

Kristine Holtham, a Kroger meat department worker in Lansing, Michigan, talks about work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic during a video press conference on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Holtham said the issue surrounding masks has become politicized and employees fear asking customers to wear one. She and the other workers said they are afraid they might bring the virus home to their loved ones after encountering 2,000-3,000 customers a day.

"At first, I would offer masks to those without one, and most people would take them graciously and say 'thank you,'" Holtham said. "But now, masks have become a political war. The employees are downright scared and afraid to ask somebody to put on a mask because of the retaliation we'd get from it."

Holtham described a time she approached a customer who refused to put on a mask and explained that it was as much about her health as as it was his.

"He turned and looked at me and said, 'I don't give a damn about your health.' It really took me aback. Gotta be honest with you, it's the last day I asked someone to wear a mask," Holtham said. "It started out being a safety issue, now it's a political issue."

According to Kroger's statement, the company supplies masks for employees, encourages customers to wear masks, uses plexiglass partitions and physical distancing floor decals, and limits the number of customers allowed in stores at one time.

Read the full statement from Kroger below:

From the beginning of the pandemic, our top priority has been the safety and health of our associates and customers. So far, Kroger has invested more than $700 million to reward our associates and safeguard our communities. (Remember also, Kroger makes substantial contributions to food banks and other assistance agencies).

Kroger offered special pay in March, April and May.

The new Thank You Pay for hourly front-line associates will provide an additional $130 million. That is $400 for qualified full-time associates and $200 for qualified part-timers.

Our CEO, Rodney McMullen, has said, “As the country moves toward reopening, we 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.”

Kroger has offered new career opportunities to more than 100,000 people across the country, providing work to people from hard-hit fields such as restaurants and hotels.

Since 2017, Kroger has increased its average rate to over $15 per hour.

We also provide our associates with health care and retirement benefits that many of our competitors do not offer their employees. This was true prior to the pandemic and remains true today.

Kroger provides retirement benefits in the form of pension investments for many of our front-line associates, which fewer than 9% of U.S. companies provide.

With health care and retirement benefits factored in, Kroger's average hourly rate grows from $15 to well over $20.

Specific changes:

  • Providing COVID-19 Emergency Leave to associates most directly affected by the virus or experiencing related symptoms and providing paid time off
  • Supplying masks for all associates and encouraging them to stay home if they are sick
  • Encouraging customers to wear masks in stores, or alternatively, use ecommerce services
  • Providing comprehensive benefits packages, including healthcare coverage and retirement benefits
  • Offering $5 million through the organization’s Helping Hands fund to provide financial support to certain associates experiencing hardships due to COVID-19, including childcare costs
  • Making mental health resources readily available
  • Continuing implementation of customer capacity limits and special shopping time for senior shoppers and higher-risk customers
  • Continuing the use of plexiglass partitions and physical distancing floor decals