Kroger protests

Sugar Land Kroger employee Joseph Garland, middle, protests outside a Houston-area store on Sept. 10. Garland and other Kroger employees are fighting for the return of their COVID-19 hazard pay. (Photo by Landan Kuhlmann)

By Landan Kuhlmann

When Joseph Garland heads to work each day at the Kroger in Sugar Land, he knows he is on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, he was among the employees demanding they continue to be better compensated for the risks they’re taking to come to work.

Dozens of Kroger employees and labor union representatives gathered outside two west Houston stores on Sept. 10 to protest the company’s May decision to remove employees’ hazard pay that had been in effect since March, when the pandemic reached the Houston region. The hazard pay provided employees an extra $2 per hour.

About a dozen or so workers were at the Kroger at 1801 S. Voss Rd., while about 15 others joined Garland at the grocery chain’s location at 9919 Westheimer Rd.

“We want to see about getting it back. All of the other stores are getting it,” said Garland, referring to other grocery retailers such as H-E-B and Walmart. “So why are we not getting it?”

Clara Campbell, a spokesperson for Kroger’s Houston division, said in an email the company has invested more than $830 million across the company to keep its employees safe since the start of the pandemic. That includes several rounds of bonuses and premium pay, according to Campbell, along with implementing emergency paid leave in March for workers most directly affected by COVID-19.

Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, ecommerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain,” she said.

Employees like Garland, however, say taking away hazard pay flies in contrast to that philosophy. After receiving notice of the hazard pay severance in May, workers subsequently reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 455.

The labor union represents grocery, retail and other workers in Texas and Louisiana.

“Apparently (this virus) is not going away. The employees are working hard; they’re risking their lives and their families’ lives to come in and make sure the community is getting the products that they need,” UFCW Local 455 Treasurer Shirley Rome said. “They’ve been here for the community, and we feel like the company should support them in that.”

Additionally, Garland said the company is attempting to force employees over to a company-wide health plan – which Rome claims would cost more out-of-pocket annually than employees make in a year. A report from Eater Houston said Kroger also is reducing full-time positions at stores and capping vacation time for part-time employees.

“(The company) is trying to take their voice away,” Rome said.

Campbell said Kroger presented a “Last, Best and Final Offer” to UFCW on Aug. 19. She said UFCW has refused to allow its Kroger employees to vote on it, and the store notified the union about its plan to move forward with implementation on Sept. 8.

As part of the company’s offer, Campbell said every Kroger employee would receive a wage increase within six months.

“We have heard from many of you that you want the opportunity to vote on our ‘Last, Best and Final Offer,’ and are frustrated that the union is not responding to your calls and messages to give you the opportunity to vote,” the company said in a Sept. 9 news release. “We hear your frustration. We believe our associates deserve better and that it’s time for you to receive the wage increases and other benefits outlined in our offer.”

Implementation of the would-be plan includes transitioning associates’ health care coverage to a company-sponsored plan, and moving benefits out of the current South-Central Health and Welfare Fund. Additionally, Campbell noted Kroger’s offer also would invest $47 million in wages for its employees.

“We are proud of our dedicated associates who are on the frontlines, serving our customers when they need us most,” she said. “We also believe our associates have waited long enough for a wage increase. Our associates and their families deserve to be rewarded for their hard work.”

Garland said that he works about 40 hours per week at the Kroger at 4825 Sweetwater Blvd. in Sugar Land, where he has been employed for 20 years. And the protest, he said, was not just for himself — but for all employees, who he said deserve to be appreciated for the sacrifices they’ve made during the pandemic.

“The bottom line is that we’re showing support, and we want that hazard pay back,” he said. “We’re out here fighting for the common good of the working American.”

According to Garland, the hazard pay gave employees an extra $2 per hour on each paycheck – or more than $300 extra per month to help feed his family and have extra funds stored away in the event of an illness or other obstacle.

While he said that may not seem like much to some, he said it means everything to the workers.

“It’s good to have $2 more on the table, just in case something does happen,” Garland said. “They can rely on that to support them in everything that comes with it.”

Rome said the overarching goal of the employee demonstrations, which have been held at other Kroger locations in the Houston area, are simple.

“Employees want the company to listen to them,” she said, “and do what’s right for them.”

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