June 10, 2020 update: In Congressional testimony on June 10, the UFCW released a new estimate that, among its members, 225 workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 29,000 workers have been infected or exposed.
For six weeks this spring, Vicente Cazares received an extra $2 per hour at his job at a Ralphs grocery store, but the so-called “hero bonus” didn’t significantly improve his standard of living. He didn’t pay more bills with the cash or use it to pad his savings account. Instead, Cazares, a dairy manager in Oxnard, California, used the bonus to reduce his chances of contracting COVID-19 at work.
“We use the extra $2 an hour to help us to buy materials to protect ourselves and our customers,” he said. “We have to buy plastic gloves for ourselves and masks because we are at risk on the frontlines.”
At the end of March, Ralphs’ parent company, Kroger, announced that it would temporarily provide the hourly bonus to its workers, but the supermarket chain eliminated the extra pay in mid-May, a move that has sparked outcry and protests from members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
Kroger isn’t the only retailer to suspend “hazard pay” for its employees. Walmart, the nation’s biggest grocer, and Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, have also stopped paying workers more. These companies are revoking bonuses as states across the country are ending or relaxing stay-at-home orders and the movement to fully reopen the economy grows. But the coronavirus remains a threat nationally, and the majority of the United States has yet to flatten the curve.
Grocery store workers are questioning their employers’ decisions to stop offering higher pay as they risk their lives. According to the Washington Post and UFCW, which represents 1.3 million workers, at least 100 grocery store workers have died from COVID-19, 5,500 have tested positive, and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed to the virus.
Fast food workers, few of whom received hazard pay raises (Chipotle offered a temporary 10 percent pay increase, and Starbucks offered a temporary $3-per-hour pay raise), are also facing risks and filing complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about working conditions that put them at risk of coronavirus exposure. On May 7, Chipotle Mexican Grill workers in New York City filed an OSHA complaint stating that they’ve been unable to maintain physical distance at work and have not been properly informed of coronavirus exposure when coworkers have fallen ill. On May 19, McDonald’s workers in California and Illinois filed similar OSHA complaints.
And last week, McDonald’s workers in Oakland, California, walked out after reportedly being told to wear dog diapers as face masks. These actions followed national May Day strikes from workers employed by Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, and Target meant to raise awareness about worker pay and protections.
In addition to risks from the coronavirus, frontline workers are increasingly facing confrontational customers, including some who refuse to wear masks or maintain physical distance. In some instances, these shoppers have even turned violent, leading to a broken arm in one grocery store employee, according to UFCW.
Even as their employees face threats, food retailers enjoyed a 29.3 percent increase in sales in March over the same period last year and hired tens of thousands of new staffers to keep up with demand. Workers say that if the industry really regarded them as “heroes,” companies would compensate them accordingly and take measures to keep them safe—limiting the numbers of customers, enforcing social distancing, providing security guards, and communicating openly when staff members contract COVID-19.
“Discontinuing hazard pay—I think that’s an extraordinary contradiction,” said Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont economics professor who has been a researcher and consultant for the United Nations, the World Bank, USAID, and contributed her expertise to local and global living wage campaigns. “It’s shifting the burden of the [COVID-19] crisis to those who can at least afford it. They can’t afford not to work [if they feel that] going to work is too dangerous, so the only available solution is to pay them more.”
Seguino noted that the elimination of hazard pay for workers on the frontlines is echoed in the larger response to the pandemic. For example, she points to the lack of ongoing stimulus payments as record numbers of Americans are unemployed or underemployed (although proposed legislation aims to change that) and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s move to lower farmworkers’ already-meager pay.
“It’s increasingly disconcerting to see all of the thank-you signs for essential workers without seeing people say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate these workers having to put themselves at risk—we are going to enable them to do their jobs safely,’” she said. “It’s very important to think about the contradiction in believing these workers are essential and at the same time not stepping up politically to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of wages and protection.”
Some elected officials are working to address this. The Essential Worker Pandemic Compensation Act, a bill introduced May 19 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representatives Jackie Speier (D-California), Joe Neguse (D-Colorado), and Max Rose (D-New York), proposes a tax-free $366,000 death benefit to the surviving spouses and children of frontline workers who die from COVID-19 and up to $1,200 per month to cover the costs of four years of full-time college education for each surviving spouse and child.
The legislation would also offer a $183,000 cash benefit to essential workers who require hospitalization because of the novel coronavirus. The UFCW has endorsed the bill as it increasingly steps up advocacy for its members. On May 15, the union also sent letters to 49 CEOs of the nation’s top supermarket chains urging them to extend hazard pay for their workers.
“Millions of American grocery workers have been rightfully called essential by our nation’s elected leaders,” the letter states. “Given the daily risks faced, these workers deserve critical protections, benefits, and a higher wage for as long as this public health crisis endures. That your companies are even considering cutting the pay of these frontline workers, while you experience record sales, is shocking in its indifference.”
Crowd Control, Compensation, and Curbing the Spread
Whether he’s working behind the dairy counter or stocking shelves, Ralph’s employee Cazares never knows quite what to expect from customers. Many are respectful and polite, he explained, but others have no qualms about violating his personal space. “They’re rude, and they don’t care,” he said. “It’s not fair because they are not just putting us at risk, they’re putting our families at risk, too.”
The 30-year-Ralphs veteran said that Mother’s Day weekend was particularly “out of control” at his store, with crowds so large that social distancing proved impossible. “I think they should have somebody supervising the crowd control,” he said. “I think Ralphs should be limiting the amount of customers who come in.”
A Kroger representative said that the company has implemented customer capacity limits and special shopping hours for seniors and higher-risk customers. However, Pat O’Connor, an assistant manager at a Ralphs in Burbank, California, said he has experienced the same crowding problem that Cazares has.
“Just a few days ago, we were overwhelmed with customers above capacity,” O’Connor said. “When we get to capacity, we have to call a district manager and let them know we’re going to close the store temporarily.” But, at that point, he explained, “it’s already too late. It creates a dangerous environment for customers and employees.”
The lack of security guards also concerns O’Connor. These personnel were assigned to his store when California’s lockdown began in mid-March, but they’re no longer there—a sign, O’Connor suggested, that Kroger isn’t invested in keep workers safe long-term.
“It’s getting scary,” he said of some interactions with customers. “I’ve had several incidents where we have to implement the mask policy and the customer will say, ‘This is a conspiracy. I’m not going to wear a mask’.”
And Kroger’s decision to halt hazard pay has added to the stress. O’Conner said the bonus helped him stay afloat when his wife lost her job and it took her weeks to receive unemployment benefits. For much of the lockdown, they have relied on his income alone. O’Connor also pointed out that workers deserve the $2 hourly bonus because everyone—from newly hired baggers to supermarket veterans—is working harder than ever.
Cazares said that the bonuses were not enough to begin with, and if competitor grocery store chains such as Albertsons can extend hazard pay to workers, Kroger can do the same.
While Kroger hasn’t announced plans to reinstate the bonus, the company did recently announce that it will give out small one-time bonuses ($400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-time workers) to be paid out in two installments.
A Kroger spokesperson told Civil Eats that its average worker earns $15 an hour and that the company has invested more than $700 million to reward and protect workers during the pandemic. But Kroger’s one-time bonuses don’t impress John Grant, the president of UFCW Local 770, which represents more than 30,000 food and retail workers in Southern California. “Workers can’t show up one time and then go home,” he said, “so this one-time bonus doesn’t help. And while the $2 hazard pay wasn’t great, taking it away is like taking away the respect for the workers and for the work they do.”
States such as Georgia may have reopened, Grant said, but the threat to society certainly has not vanished. “It’s just a sad commentary on the way the system is clearly rigged,” he argued. “It’s just a never-ending quest for sales and profits over the lives of our members.”
An Invisible Workplace Hazard
Kroger workers on the West Coast aren’t the only food workers in the region to fight for better treatment. Twenty-six workers at an Oakland McDonald’s went on strike at the end of May to demand a deep cleaning of their store and real personal protective equipment, rather than coffee filters and dog diapers, after at least four workers contracted COVID-19. Their strike effectively shut the store down.
The Oakland actions follow national McDonald’s workers strikes, including at a Los Angeles-area restaurant where a COVID-infected worker ended up on a ventilator. Dozens of McDonald’s workers in 14 states have caught the virus, according to Fight for $15, and employees are demanding essential worker pay of at least double their proposed $15 benchmark during the pandemic. In May, McDonald’s announced that it was granting “appreciation pay” equal to 10 percent of pay earned that month to corporate-owned restaurant employees, but the vast majority of McDonald’s staff work in franchise-owned restaurants.
As McDonald’s workers strike, Chipotle workers in New York City have also protested what they deem unsafe conditions. Carlos Hernandez, a 21-year-old crew member, who runs the grill, and washes dishes at a Sixth Avenue Chipotle, recently signed an OSHA complaint against his employer. He told Civil Eats that in March one of his colleagues contracted coronavirus, but he found out from his coworkers instead of from management.
“They closed the store down, but the managers didn’t give us a heads up,” said Hernandez, who fears bringing the coronavirus home to his mother with multiple sclerosis and his 83-year-old grandmother.
In a statement about the OSHA complaint, a Chipotle spokesperson said that the company has paid out nearly $9 million in bonuses to its employees and expanded its emergency leave benefits to accommodate those who contracted COVID-19. The statement also said that the restaurant chain prioritizes the health and safety of its workers and that it has adopted measures to sanitize restaurants and encourage social distancing, which contradicts the experiences of workers Civil Eats interviewed on the ground.
Meanwhile, Miguel Amigon, a cook at another Manhattan Chipotle, suspects that he may have already contracted COVID-19 and infected his family. In March, he discovered that a coworker’s sister tested positive for the virus. Although his supervisors told him that his colleague was taking time off, they did not explain why, Amigon, said. He then developed telltale symptoms of COVID-19, including losing his sense of taste and smell. Afterward, his wife and one of his children developed symptoms, but they could not get tested because they didn’t present with fevers that were high enough, he told Civil Eats.
Amigon did receive paid sick leave during the 14 days he took off to recover, but he argues that Chipotle employees deserve more than the 10 percent pay bump they’ve received during the pandemic.
“Customers don’t bring masks, and we can all get infected easily,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, low-wage food workers faced health risks. Seguino of the University of Vermont told Civil Eats that these workers are at risk of a phenomenon known as weathering, in which long-term stress causes the cells in the body to degenerate earlier than normal.
“The high stress of being low-income means you begin to develop chronic disease,” Seguino said. “You are at risk at a much earlier age. I think that’s the disconnect for people; they don’t realize the way power works to disproportionately shift burdens to those who are the least powerful.”
That’s why Seguino believes the federal government shouldn’t provide stimulus funds to companies that fire low-wage workers for missing work at this time. And corporations have a responsibility to adequately compensate workers who do show up.
“In economics. It’s a given that people who do more dangerous, more stressful work deserve higher pay, which is how we explain the salaries of of surgeons or workers on the North Sea oil rigs,” she said. “But … this is not being borne out right now. People who are taking on more risks than the rest of us deserve to be compensated for that, and their families deserve protection.”