This Saturday is the last day Fred Meyer employees will earn an extra $2 per hour for working during a pandemic.
Kroger, Fred Meyer’s parent company, announced it would begin paying their workers higher wages on March 29, just two weeks after states began shuttering their economies in response to COVID-19. Called “hero pay” by Kroger, the extra $2 per hour was meant to reflect the risk employees were taking by showing up to work in a crowded grocery store. Several other grocery stores, including Whole Foods and New Seasons, also gave their employees temporary raises, which currently remain in effect.
But while the pandemic continues with no definite end in sight, Kroger plans to end hazard pay on May 17—to the chagrin of many Oregon Fred Meyer employees and their union, United Food Worker and Commercial Workers United (UFCW) Local 555.
“It’s pretty insulting for Fred Meyer to cancel hazard pay when the hazard’s not over,” Miles Eshaia, a local spokesperson for UCFW, told the Mercury.
UCFW is circulating an online petition asking Gov. Kate Brown to enact stricter health safety standards for grocery stores, and use state tax credits to encourage companies to continue paying hazard pay. The union is also working to pressure Kroger to extend the higher wages for the foreseeable future.
Melody Gramley, a Fred Meyer employee in Salem and a member of UFCW Local 555’s executive board, was among the union organizers who first pressured Kroger to provide hazard pay in March. She thinks it’s ending too soon.
“I think as long as we have a pandemic, and as long as the state of Oregon is still on restrictions and we are still being restricted, I think they need to continue,” Gramley said. “They wouldn’t even be doing this anyway if it hadn’t been for the union stepping up for those numbers. It’s not like they did it on their own accord.”
In a statement being shared with media outlets, a Kroger spokesperson wrote that the company would “make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business” during the pandemic.
“We continuously evaluate employee compensation and benefits packages,” the statement continues.
Fred Meyer now provides masks for its employees, has installed plexiglass barriers in front of its cash registers, and is limiting its capacity to 50 percent. But Gramley said those precautions aren’t enough to mitigate the risk workers are taking when they clock in for a shift.
“They’re forcing employees to wear masks and doing temperature checks on employees—but they’re still not restricting the customers,” she said.
Erin, an Oregon Fred Meyer employee quoted in a recent UCFW press release, echoed Gramley’s concerns.
“No one is social distancing and it makes it hard trying to fill the shelves when there are 15 people in front of my section,” Erin said. “When you try to enforce the social distancing for safety reasons, customers get agitated and aggressive towards us. We are exhausted and trying our best to keep them and ourselves safe.”
It’s not yet clear what actions the union will take if Kroger fails to extend hazard pay past May 17, but Gramley said the topic will likely be brought up at a board meeting later this month.
“We’ll see what happens,” she added.