Update posted on May 19, 2020
After we reported this story, on May 19 Kroger confirmed that it would no longer seek repayments from workers.
UFCW Local 400 released the following statement:
We look forward to informing our union members who have received these collections letters that Kroger is no longer seeking money from them. We will also investigate any incidents in which a member may have already paid some money back to the company to ensure they are made whole. We are pleased Kroger has come to its senses. Now they can focus their attention on extending ‘hero pay’ until this crisis is over.
Veronica Copeland’s last day at the Kroger in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she works was March 23. She has an autoimmune condition that meant she needed to take emergency leave when the pandemic was ramping up. Two weeks were paid, and then she was supposed to take her vacation time if she needed to remain out.
“They said they were going to pay me the following two weeks,” she said. “Well, they kept forgetting. Some other people were getting the pay, but I wasn’t, so I kept having to call my manager.” It took a couple of weeks for them to finally overnight her the paper checks.
She thought that would be the end of it, but then she got a letter saying, “As you may be aware, you were overpaid your Emergency Pay.” Kroger was asking for repayment. “They ask you to acknowledge it, sign for it, and to agree to one of three payback terms: one, two, or three installments that they will take out of your paychecks,” she said. It struck her as strange, so she called her union representative right away. “They said, ‘Don’t sign anything.’”
Copeland wasn’t the only one who’d received such a letter. She noticed people on an online forum discussing the letters. “Somebody had brought it up and a number of people were chiming in that they were paying it back,” she said. “I’m off work for the foreseeable future, as long as they will extend my leave. I don’t have any income coming in, so I don’t understand where they expect it to come out of. And I have to imagine I’m not the only one in that boat.”
UFCW Local 400, which represents Copeland and 13,000 other workers at Kroger across seven states and Washington, D.C., told me:
We have recently received numerous reports of Kroger associates receiving collections letters from their employer. We are committed to investigating each case thoroughly and we will continue to advocate on behalf of our members. No matter how much Kroger wishes it were so, things are not back to normal. This is a time to be rewarding our heroes on the frontlines, not cutting their well-deserved pay.
What makes this all the more frustrating to Copeland is that it’s coming just as Kroger decided to end its “hero pay” of $2 extra per hour. The extra hazard pay will end May 17, though the pandemic that made those workers into “heroes” against their will is far from over. “They are taking it away from those people, which is ridiculous as far as I’m concerned because they’re still going to require them to wear masks,” Copeland said. “If it’s dangerous enough that you have to require them to wear masks, why wouldn’t you continue that extra pay? It is only $2 an hour, Kroger.”
And the company is doing quite well in the pandemic, Copeland noted. Its stock is up, and the company projects continued growth; recent SEC filings show that executives’ pay was up in fiscal year 2019 by millions—the CEO had a 75 percent increase in his compensation over the previous year. It bought back $355 million of its own shares in the first quarter. “They are making money hand over fist,” Copeland said. “Before all this started, two weeks before I went off, we had our first million-dollar week ever. A million-dollar week in our little tiny store, and we’ve hit it now a few times. They are definitely making a lot of money. The grocery stores have the monopoly on everything.”
Copeland continued, “I just don’t know what they’re thinking in the middle of all of this demanding repayment.”
The conditions in the store had been difficult before Copeland took time off. West Virginia shut things down toward the end of March, and before that she’d been frustrated by the lax behavior in her store.
I was like, “What are the courtesy clerks doing getting carts without even having gloves on?” and I was kind of laughed and pooh-poohed at. Then, I asked one manager, “Customers keep asking, are we going to start the early senior thing?” He laughed at me. He said, “Well, what do you expect us to do? Card everybody coming in the store?” I said, “I’m just asking because other stores are doing it [and] I have had several elderly customers ask me today.”
After she left, she continued to hear horror stories from coworkers.
I went to the store one time and it was just way overcrowded. The customers were not adhering to anything. At that point, they didn’t have the aisles marked off, they didn’t have the arrows, they didn’t have the plastic shields—they didn’t have any of that until after April 1. To me, it was a nightmare in there. I started going to a much slower grocery store that I can get in and out without having to see that many people. I would much rather go to Kroger because I get a discount there, but I just can’t because it is just too many people.
Even now, she said, “I’ve talked to several of my coworkers. They are terrified every day because they still can’t get a lot of the customers to adhere to the rules. Management won’t be forceful enough with customers. They don’t want to offend any customers.” Yet despite the extra fear and stress, Kroger intends to take away their extra pay, a move that angers Copeland. “It is really unfair that they’re taking away that little bit of extra pay they’re getting.”
Update posted on May 19, 2020
We got a flood of email from Kroger workers and customers after this story published.
Yvette Booker wrote, “I have been working at Kroger for over 26 years and I’m still not making $15 an hour and this is with the $2 Hero Bonus.” Kroger is making plenty of money, Booker noted, and the needs of employees “will continue to evolve and change.” Keeping the extra $2 “will be very greatly appreciated,” she wrote, though she also notes it should be more. “The employees are constantly, every day, putting their lives on the line, as well as their family members, when they make it home to their loved ones after a hard day at work. We as employees just want living wages, protective gear, safe workplace and we want fair compensation for our labor and this is not asking too much as associates.”
The pandemic shows no signs of ending, Booker wrote, and the risks remain real. “Hero pay didn’t outlast the virus; it just outlived its usefulness to Kroger.”
Anthony wrote that he was laid off from his service job of three years due to COVID-19 shutdown. He started collecting unemployment, but when he heard that Kroger needed people he went to apply. He said that he told the HR person that he had a prior felony and they said they’d waive the background check. “I worked for them 3 1/2 weeks until I was terminated for my felony when my background check came back.” Now, he wrote, his unemployment is denied because he was terminated from the job. “I risked my health working during this pandemic and lost my benefits, which was more money than my paycheck from Kroger. Feeling used and mistreated.”
Another worker, from Memphis, wrote in to say that they were worried about the company’s safety protocols. “They’re having someone taking our temperature with bare hands, not sanitizing the thermometer after every use and not wearing masks. I feel we really still need our ‘heroes bonus’ and that it shouldn’t go away, we’re in grave danger more now than ever, it’s just as a big chance of us getting this virus now than it was in the beginning. We’re the heroes just like other frontline workers. Without the employees, there is no Kroger. Some employees have small children and spouses that they could’ve spread this virus to, trying to do their job to keep the customers satisfied.”
A Ralphs worker (a Kroger subsidiary) from California wrote in also frustrated at the loss of heroes pay. “I hardly see associates with a smile on their face,” he wrote “I see them all under stress. Just like Uber, calling their drivers ‘partner,’ so they can escape the responsibility of caring for or covering the drivers.” Kroger, he wrote, is calling them “heroes” with just $2 extra while they risk bringing the virus home to their families. “American stimulus money is going to Kroger to buy their food. They’re enjoying the billions, and leaving us to die for pennies.”
Marcia, a Kroger shopper, wrote in that she was frustrated that Kroger was taking away the heroes pay. “We are far from over with Covid-19 and it disheartening to take this pay away from them.” She was also frustrated that the managers at her local store didn’t seem to take wearing masks seriously. “Please everyone at Kroger be safe, we need you and you need us.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.