Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers like grocery store employees have stepped up to do jobs that expose them to hundreds of people per day, thereby putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus. To support their employees during this unprecedented time, companies including Kroger, Target, Walmart, Amazon, Rite Aid, and Albertsons instituted a hazard pay policy, and some have given their employees paid time off to get the COVID vaccine.
However, as the pandemic continues, some companies have begun to lift these policies — including Kroger, which replaced it with a $400 bonus, according to the Washington Post. But a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 infections are still high, and it’s still dangerous to be an essential worker as it was six months ago. In response, some cities have begun passing their own hazard pay ordinances, and Kroger disapproves.
The Guardian reports that Kroger—which owns a variety of supermarket chains and warehouse stores—has been conveniently closing stores in cities that have passed hazard pay ordinances.
In January 2021, Kroger closed two grocery stores in Long Beach, California, after the California Grocers Association failed to stop the $4-an-hour hazard pay ordinance. In February, Kroger also closed two grocery stores in Seattle after the city passed a similar ordinance, the Washington Post reported.
Most recently, Kroger announced plans to close three stores and eliminate 250 jobs in Los Angeles after the Los Angeles city council voted to grant frontline workers a $5-an-hour hazard pay increase for 120 days. Now, two council members want to investigate why Kroger made its decision.
“Food 4 Less [which is owned by Kroger] can afford to treat us fairly but until now they’re refusing to do so,” employee Susan Hernandez said, via KTLA. “The company is treating us workers and the communities we serve as second-class citizens and we need to change that.”
Kroger claims that it isn’t sustainable to continue to operate in these cities because of increased costs during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, local municipalities disregard the fact that, even in a pandemic, grocers operate on razor-thin profit margins in a very competitive landscape,” a spokesperson told the Guardian. “It’s never our desire to close stores, but when you factor in the increased costs of operating during COVID-19, consistent financial losses at these locations, and extra pay mandates, it becomes impossible to operate these stores.”
However, the Guardian reported that business has been good for the national chain during the pandemic. Kroger reported an operating profit of $2.8 billion in 2020, increasing from $2.25 billion in 2019. CEO Rodney McMullen earned $21 million in 2019.
Fed-up employees of Kroger told the Guardian that Kroger closed the stores in retaliation against the ordinance and employees asking for increased wages.
“It’s retaliation,” Ralph’s grocery clerk Tina Jones said. “Because none of these executives at Kroger, did they give us their yearly bonus so we could get $5 an hour? No, they’re sitting in their nice houses in the hills or wherever they live, and telling us we don’t deserve an extra $5 an hour.”