On December 14, several Denver area grocery stores displayed unusual light shows — but the businesses weren't responsible for them. UFCW Local 7, whose members include many of those working at major supermarkets, projected images (some featuring Dr. Seuss's Grinch character) calling for a return of so-called "hero" pay — a $2-per-hour bump given to employees during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because of the risks they took to serve the greater public — on King Soopers and Safeway outlets.
The projections were part of a two-pronged attack, and followed a letter to Kroger, owner of King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado, that was co-signed by Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
After hero pay was discontinued on May 17, UFCW Local 7 president Kim Cordova said the move indicated that Kroger put profits over safety, especially following the revelation that the corporation's CEO, Rodney McMullen (the recipient of Bernie's letter), had received a 21 percent compensation increase in 2019, bringing his annual pay to $14.5 million.
The risk to grocery workers from the novel coronavirus certainly hasn't lessened over the seven months since the bonuses ended. While Safeway has experienced relatively few outbreaks in Colorado (just at one store and a distribution center, both of which were resolved early this past summer), King Soopers and City Market outposts have a very different track record. They led our December 8 update spotlighting the chains with the most outbreaks, with 25 to date.
The State of Colorado continues to see grocery workers as among the most essential. During a December 9 press conference hosted by Governor Jared Polis, Scott Bookman, incident commander for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, shared the vaccine distribution plan blueprint and revealed that grocery workers will be included in Phase 2 of the rollout, alongside higher-risk individuals (those age 65 or older, as well as people with chronic medical conditions that increase their vulnerability), educators and employees at meatpacking plants or on farms.
King Soopers spokesperson Jessica Trowbridge offers the following response in regard to the letter and call for the return of "hero" pay:
Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers. While meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, e-commerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials. We are proud of our dedicated associates who are on the frontlines, serving our customers when they need us most. Since March, we have invested over $1.3 billion to reward our associates (i.e., Appreciation Pay, Hero Bonus and Thank You Pay) and safeguard our associates and customers.
We continue to listen to our associates and take steps to ensure their safety and well-being. We also continue to execute dozens of safety measures and provide support to our associates through benefits like paid emergency leave and our $15 million Helping Hands fund, which provides financial support to associates experiencing hardships due to COVID-19, including childcare.
We are deeply saddened by the loss of our King Soopers family members. Our associates are part of our family and we, along with their families, mourn their loss deeply. We continue to take steps to support and safeguard our associates and customers, resulting in our total COVID-19 incident rate tracking below the rate in surrounding communities where we operate. Our stores are coordinating closely with local health departments and taking immediate action to support and safeguard our associates and customers when we learn of a positive COVID-19 case among our workforce.
We recognize that our associates are a reflection of the communities where they work and live and have recently launched an internal campaign, Staying Safe at Home. Our goal is to create awareness and to provide reminders to our associates that when they are off work they must remain vigilant in protecting their own health.
We also reached out to Safeway in regard to this topic; we'll update this post when we get a response. In the meantime, here's the letter to McMullen:
Dear Mr. McMullen,
We write to you as UFCW Local Union presidents, representing 30,000 Essential Workers at Kroger Co. stores across Colorado, Wyoming, and Washington State. Together with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), we hope and expect you are taking substantial time to work with the current and incoming administration to ensure that your grocery store Essential Workers are a priority for a COVID-19 vaccination. We write today to urge you to take the necessary and responsible steps to improve stores' safety and compensate Kroger Essential Workers fairly by immediately reinstating Hero Pay ($2/hr.) to all workers across the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage our communities and stores more than ever and, as we navigate this especially hazardous winter season, it is imperative to recognize the dangers Essential Grocery Store Workers face. Our members, your employees, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, yet these heroes are being denied the Hero Pay you awarded them at the beginning of the pandemic. Kroger's employees went from Heroes to Zeros. As we continue to witness a severe and alarming increase in worker case numbers, store safety must significantly improve to stop the spread. Preventive measures include enforcing mask requirements, reinstating and enforcing strict shopper limits to allow social distancing for all in the stores, improved staffing on all shifts so there is sufficient coverage to enable all workers to take COVID-19 sanitation breaks where they can conduct extra hand-washing and have allotted times to wipe and disinfect all areas of the store.
As a company, you initially recognized the dangers of this virus, implementing a Kroger Hero Pay bonus of $2/hr. in March, you coordinated better staffing for the extra work needed to clean stores, allowing more frequent breaks to wash hands and other safety measures. Yet, case numbers and deaths have risen exponentially since you prematurely claimed that we were "beginning to see a return to normal," and you ill-advisedly relaxed safety protocols and stripped away hazard pay on May 17, 2020. These decisions blatantly disregarded the dangers Essential Grocery Store Workers faced, not just by going into work but also by weakening them financially when dealing with COVID-related hardships, such as lack of childcare due to homeschooling, sick relatives, and additional medical costs.
Since Kroger stripped away Hero Pay, COVID-19 infections among these Essential Grocery Store Workers have exploded among our members. For example, there have been 491 positive cases, a 692 percent increase, and three deaths, among Local 7 members alone: James McKay, Karen Haws, and Randy Narvaez. As recent COVID cases in Washington have reached record levels, we see cases of grocery workers on a significant rise, and several outbreaks have been reported in just the last two weeks. In some cases, these outbreaks include more than a dozen cases in only one store.
Underneath those numbers, we see the threat to communities of color, which make up a majority (50%) of our nation's Essential Workers — and an even more significant proportion of the food and agriculture workforce.
You often mention your experience as a stock boy to reaffirm to the public and shareholders that you're committed to seeing things through your customers' eyes. The time has come for you to see the risks through the eyes of your workers. Your inaction only increases the fear and anxiety that our members deal with as they walk into work each day.
Hundreds of thousands of UFCW members work to keep YOUR stores clean, YOUR shelves stocked, and YOUR business running. Their work has enabled the large increases in sales and higher profits you've reaped since the pandemic began. Yet, they are working in fear, they are working in danger, and they are working without adequate support and respect from their employer, Kroger. They are risking their health and that of their families to keep America's food supply chain running and the country fed. It is time that YOU take care of Kroger's frontline Essential Workers like they are taking care of your customers.
Every day wasted is another day our members risk contracting COVID-19 at a Kroger store. Another day, our members are not paid fairly for the dangers they face conducting essential work. Kroger must reinstate Hero Pay immediately. Kroger should be a leader by ensuring their profits, made possible by Kroger's employees, are at least partially used to keep them and our shoppers safe and secure.
That is why we call on you, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen, to reinstate Hero pay immediately because, as you stated, Essential Grocery Store Workers are heroes. They were heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, and they continue to be the unsung heroes keeping Kroger and the country moving forward.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders
Kim Cordova, UFCW Local 7 President
Faye Guenther, UFCW 21 President
This post has been updated to include a statement from King Soopers spokesperson Jessica Trowbridge.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.