US grocery stores and coffee chains gave workers hazard pay. Now they're taking it back
They called it hero pay.
As coronavirus cases soared and state and local governments issued stay at home orders, grocery workers navigating wraparound lines and panicked customers grew anxious about exposure to the virus.
Companies resorted to offering essential workers financial incentives in an effort to keep operations running. Major chains including Target, Walmart, CVS, Whole Foods, Costco, Sprouts and Kroger offered bonuses or temporary raises to employees.
Starbucks shuttered thousands of stores and offered all employees a month of paid leave. Those that stayed on to work the drive-throughs that remained open received a $3-an-hour raise.
But this rise in wages — the "hero bonuses" and "appreciation pay" — is already subsiding, even with the number of new infections refusing to fall. With Starbucks reopening stores, those $3 raises will terminate at the end of May. So will Target's $2 hourly raise. Kroger-owned grocery chains such as Ralphs, QFC and Fred Meyer will stop paying an extra $2 per hour Sunday.
That's an unwelcome surprise to employees who feel the circumstances that won them extra pay haven't changed much.
"The pandemic isn't going away, coronavirus isn't going away, so why are they taking away these two dollars from us? It's absurd," Ralphs cashier Dionna Richardson said.
Grocery stores have seen their share of infections. An outbreak at a Ralphs in Hollywood marked the largest cluster of cases at a retail store recorded by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Out of 158 employees, 21 have tested positive for the virus. Scores of grocery workers across the country have died.
The store Richardson works at on Mid-Wilshire is just as busy and conditions are just as risky as they've been since the start of the crisis, she said. Customers and employees often can't or won't maintain the recommended six feet of space between themselves.
Ralphs installed Plexiglass barriers at registers, but they're scant protection. Customers lean on the barriers and poke their head around the sides, Richardson said.
Often, customers aren't wearing face coverings. When that happens, Richardson takes it upon herself to ask them to wear one. Some push back, making aggressive or testy remarks, or refusing to leave the store. "It's like a war zone sometimes," she said.
Unions like UFCW Local 770, which represents more than 20,000 grocery workers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, criticized the shift.
"The pandemic exposed how little corporations pay many workers, workers on whom the public deeply depends," said John Grant, president of UFCW Local 770 in a statement. "With all eyes on essential workers during the pandemic, grocery corporations were quick to capitalize on the good PR of raising wages, but they cannot justify taking them away, especially since they have continued to do business while so many other businesses are closed and their profits are record high."
While lockdowns have caused financial strain for many companies, grocery and pharmacy companies have seen gains in sales as demand for essential goods and food has skyrocketed. Drugstore chain CVS Health saw its first quarter profits surge 41%, for example.
A Kroger spokeswoman said in an email the company is "committed to the continued support of our associates' safety and mental well-being" and will continue to discuss compensation and benefits with the UFCW. The average hourly wage is $15, she said.