Grocery Stores & Essential Businesses Plan To Stop Giving Workers Hazard Pay

Elly Belle
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 05: A delivery man wears a protective face mask while riding a bicycle in Kips Bay during the coronavirus pandemic on May 5, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 258,000 lives with over 3.7 million infections reported. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 05: A delivery man wears a protective face mask while riding a bicycle in Kips Bay during the coronavirus pandemic on May 5, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 258,000 lives with over 3.7 million infections reported. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

While stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders remain intact in many places, essential workers at grocery stores and restaurants remain at the forefront of our nation’s crisis. Many of these full-time workers — who are often traveling from home-to-home to deliver needs — continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic while risking their lives. For that, strikes continue to span the country as workers demand hazard pay from corporations employing them to do this kind of work. Although companies initially offered hazard pay upwards of $2 to workers on the frontline, many are now ending that policy.

Many companies eventually offered essential workers financial incentives like pay raises to keep work running smoothly, including major chains like Target, Walmart, and Costco. Workers at Amazon including Whole Foods owned by Amazon, organized nationwide strikes in March to demand protective equipment, better safety measures, and hazard pay — and were ultimately given $2 more an hour for working on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic. Whole Foods told Refinery29 that any increased pay will end this month. 

Now that public outcry and protests organized by workers begin to fade, the extra money is subsiding, and companies will have to find new ways to take care of their workers. All Kroger-owned grocery store chains including Ralphs, QFC and Fred Meyer reported that they terminated the extra $2 per hour as of May 17, according to the Los Angeles Times.

However, the company announced days later that they would be adding an additional “thank you” bonus: $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-time, both paid in installments on May 30 and June 18. However, Target, which originally planned to terminate its program at the end of May, has instead  extended its $2 bonus pay for workers through July 4.

Still, for workers who spoke with Refinery29, the rescinding of hazard pay feels surreal at a time like this. One anonymous worker for a grocery store in New York, says that their main issue with being asked to come back to work without continued hazard pay is that essential workers are not seen as essential.

A worker at a Starbucks in New Jersey tells Refinery29 that, “It’s like these lower income people can risk their lives and their families lives daily, so some white upper middle class middle aged woman can get their frappuccino, because they just needed to get out of the house for a little bit.” Starbucks, which was paying workers an additional $3 heroes pay, will also terminate its program at the end of May, according to the LA Times.

“I feel so incredibly sick to my stomach knowing that we’re losing our extra 2 dollar pay,” a worker at a Whole Foods in California tells Refinery29. “If we are still required temperature checks and to wear face masks why aren’t we still getting hazard?”

With more than 85,000 deaths from coronavirus in America and counting, essential workers have been bearing the brunt of it all, with reports of dozens of grocery store employee deaths back in April. Last month, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represent approximately 1.3 million workers including those employed by Kroger, called on government officials to designate grocery store associates as extended first responders or emergency personnel, which would entitle them to better pay and protections.

While no protests organized by workers have officially been announced yet, unions like UFCW Local 770 in Los Angeles, which represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in and around Los Angeles counties, have criticized these companies’ decisions. “The pandemic exposed how little corporations pay many workers, workers on whom the public deeply depends,” John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770, said in a statement.

In response to the removal of hazard pay, a Kroger spokesperson confirmed that Heroes pay will end in May, and indicated that they are aware of the needs of those working for the company. “Our commitment is that we will continue to listen and be responsive, empowering us to make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business. We continuously evaluate employee compensation and benefits packages,” they said in a statement to Refinery29. A representative from Target also echoed how the company was working to help employees, saying, “We’re committed to providing them with the resources they deserve to take care of themselves and their own families.”

A spokesperson from Amazon, Whole Foods’ parent company reiterated the company’s existing investment in hazard pay, as well as double overtime pay, stating that the program cost $800 million for “hourly employees and partners.” Despite the fact that they will cease offering the increased hourly pay after May 30, the company representative said that they are committed to “providing flexibility with leave of absence options, including expanding the policy to cover COVID-19 circumstances.” “We continue to see heavy demand during this difficult time and the team is doing incredible work for our customers and the community,” Amazon said in a statement to Refinery29.

“We got shirts last week that say ‘Heroes’ on the front. How much money did the company spend on those stupid shirts when they could have just paid us the way we deserve to be paid?” the California Whole Foods worker says. “I don’t want to be a fucking hero, I want to be able to pay my bills.”

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