Unions usually like it when companies give the workers they represent more money. But UFCW Local 7 is deeply suspicious of the $100 bonuses that Kroger, the grocery giant that operates King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado, is offering to pay employees who agree to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Why? UFCW Local 7 president Kim Cordova portrays the move as a public-relations stunt designed to reassure customers and make Kroger look good, even though the company ended a so-called "hero-pay" bump of $2 per hour for employees in May 2020.
"Kroger providing $100 payments is a distraction from its decision to strip away $2/hour hazard pay nine months ago," Cordova maintains in a written statement. "Our members are frontline, essential workers who have risked their health to go to work every day to keep the store running and their communities fed. In those nine months, Kroger has experienced record profits while nearly 600 of our Local 7 grocery members at King Soopers have contracted COVID-19."
Kroger spokesperson Kelli McGannon pushes back on this interpretation. "Our new vaccine payment is another proof point of our commitment to the safety of our associates," she says. "Commentary that characterizes our intentions otherwise is misguided."
More than 12,000 Kroger workers in Colorado are part of UFCW Local 7, and there's no question that the novel coronavirus has hit stores where they work hard. In our recent roundup of chains in Colorado with the most outbreaks, Kroger placed second (to Walmart), with thirty outbreaks statewide through January 13. Moreover, at least three Kroger employees have died from the disease.
At a June memorial for victims, Cordova blasted the company for pulling the plug on hero pay the previous month, and the issue arose again in December, when union reps projected images (some including Dr. Seuss's Grinch character) on multiple King Soopers and Safeway outlets across the metro area.
According to McGannon, any portrayal of Kroger as uncaring is deeply unfair. In addition to the vaccine payments for employees, which were revealed on February 5, the company has also announced additional rewards, including a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points for hourly front-line associates (click for more details).
"Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been clear that our top priority was the safety of our associates and customers, while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores and access to fresh, affordable food," McGannon stresses. "We would not operate stores that are hazardous to our associates and customers, which is why we’ve invested $1.5 billion to both reward associates and to implement dozens of safety measures. We began implementing these safety measures early in the pandemic and since that time have only strengthened our vigilance and resolve. We also continue to support our associates through benefits like paid emergency leave and our $15 million Helping Hands fund that provides financial support to associates experiencing certain hardships due to COVID-19."
Still, Cordova continues to see the inoculation bonus as the equivalent of a stunt. "While we believe that all employees should have access to and the option to receive the vaccine, the public shouldn’t be distracted by this PR tactic," she says. "They must do more to protect workers and customers."
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