Kroger workers pushing for return of hazard pay

Kroger employees and labor union representatives have engaged in a series of protests at Houston-area locations this month.

Kroger shoppers in the area might have seen a group of protesters outside the West 43rd Street location within the last couple weeks. Another demonstration is scheduled for Saturday evening at the grocery store on 1035 N. Shepherd Dr.

Kroger employees and labor union representatives have engaged in a series of protests at Houston-area locations this month in response to the company’s May decision to remove employees’ hazard pay that had been in effect since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the region. The hazard pay provided employees an extra $2 per hour.

“Hazard pay seems completely reasonable to ask for by essential workers,” said Katy Fenton, who shops at the Oak Forest Kroger at 1352 W. 43rd St. “They put their health and the health of their families on the line every day.”

Hazard pay has remained part of the compensation package at one of Kroger’s rivals, Texas-based grocer H-E-B, while becoming a contentious issue among Kroger employees. There are four Kroger locations in the area, with the other two at 239 W. 20th St. and 1440 Studemont St.

Clara Campbell, a spokesperson for Kroger’s Houston division, said in an email the company has invested more than $830 million across the company to keep its employees safe since the start of the pandemic. That includes several rounds of bonuses and premium pay, according to Campbell, along with implementing emergency paid leave in March for workers most directly affected by COVID-19.

“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,” she said.

But a Kroger employee at a recent protest outside a Westheimer Road location said taking away hazard pay flies in the face of that philosophy. After receiving notice of the hazard pay severance in May, workers subsequently reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 455.

The labor union represents grocery, retail and other workers in Texas and Louisiana.

“Apparently (this virus) is not going away. The employees are working hard; they’re risking their lives and their families’ lives to come in and make sure the community is getting the products that they need,” UFCW Local 455 Treasurer Shirley Rome said. “They’ve been here for the community, and we feel like the company should support them in that.”

The Kroger employee said the company is attempting to force workers over to a company-wide health plan, which Rome claims would cost more out-of-pocket annually than employees make in a year. A report from Eater Houston said Kroger also is reducing full-time positions at stores and capping vacation time for part-time employees.

“(The company) is trying to take their voice away,” Rome said.

Campbell said Kroger presented a “Last, Best and Final Offer” to UFCW on Aug. 19. She said UFCW has refused to allow its Kroger employees to vote on it, and the grocer notified the union about its plan to move forward with implementation on Sept. 8.

As part of the company’s offer, Campbell said every Kroger employee would receive a wage increase within six months.

Implementation of Kroger’s proposed benefits plan includes transitioning associates’ health care coverage to a company-sponsored plan, and moving benefits out of the current South-Central Health and Welfare Fund. Additionally, Campbell noted Kroger’s offer also would invest $47 million in wages for its employees.

“We are proud of our dedicated associates who are on the front lines, serving our customers when they need us most,” she said. “We also believe our associates have waited long enough for a wage increase. Our associates and their families deserve to be rewarded for their hard work.”

Fenton, the local Kroger customer, said the store has raised its prices during the pandemic. She said the added revenue from those increases should be used to pay the company’s “hardest-working employees.”

“I heard a great line the other day, ‘Since when has the word essential come to also mean expendable?'” Fenton said. “We owe our essential workers much more than a ‘thank you.'”

Rome said the overarching goal of the employee demonstrations are simple.

“Employees want the company to listen to them,” she said, “and do what’s right for them.”

Staff writer Betsy Denson contributed to this report.

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