BUSINESS

After Denying At-Risk Workers Paid Leave, Kroger Relaxes Policies Slightly [UPDATE]

The company appeared to change its policy after this article's initial publication.

Two Kroger supermarket employees who need to self-quarantine because they are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 said that the chain was refusing to provide them with emergency paid leave. 

Earlier this week, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen announced an emergency sick leave policy similar to ones put in place by a number of large employers. He said that Kroger would give 14 paid sick days to anyone officially diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed under mandatory quarantine.

In practice, however, the new policy is not enough to deal with the epidemic sweeping the country. [See the policy guidelines.]

Whether or not grocery workers have true access to paid sick leave is becoming an increasingly dire public health issue. As most workers are being sent home as part of a nationwide effort to practice social distancing, grocery store workers are not. New York, for example, recently deemed them essential workers who do not have to follow guidance to stay home. If these workers can’t stay home when they’re sick, they pose a health risk to throngs of customers. And they also risk infection themselves.

A pharmacy assistant at a Kroger in New Mexico told HuffPost that she’d hoped to qualify for the emergency sick leave. She has diabetes and an autoimmune disorder, and her doctor told her to stay home for the next 14 days rather than risk contracting coronavirus. 

But under Kroger’s strict criteria, she does not qualify for additional paid leave. She was told to use whatever paid sick time she’d already accrued this year, which was about three days. After exhausting those days, she would be on her own, facing a stark decision: Get paid and risk getting sick or stay home and risk losing her income.

“I’m just as scared to be at work as to lose my job,” she said, asking that her name not be published for fear of employer reprisal. 

Kroger is the largest supermarket chain in the country, with 2,500 stores ― including the Harris Teeter, Dillons and Ralphs brands ― and 453,000 employees. It’s looking to do more hiring to deal with record-breaking sales and crowds as consumers around the country stock up in a frenzy of pandemic shopping. 

I’m just as scared to be at work as to lose my job. Kroger worker in New Mexico

Yet its employees don’t qualify for the emergency paid leave provisions put in place by Congress earlier this week because the White House, the business lobby and congressional Republicans pushed for a huge carveout for companies with more than 500 employees. Kroger, Walmart, Target and many other large chains get a pass on providing paid sick leave under this new law.

Kroger also came under fire this week for giving its workers $25 gift cards instead of robust paid sick leave or hazard pay as they risk their health coming into crowded stores every day.

A Kroger spokeswoman did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Friday.

“Grocery and retail workers are making sure Americans are fed and have the resources they need to weather the coronavirus crisis,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in a call Friday with Walmart and Amazon associates, as well as several labor and progressive groups. “They are on the frontlines of this pandemic, but the federal government and their corporate employers continue to leave them behind, like they have for decades. Even before coronavirus plunged our economy into chaos, these workers were vulnerable, with low hourly wages, unpredictable schedules and minimum protections on the job.”

Workers at Walmart, which has an emergency policy similar to Kroger’s, also told HuffPost this week that they’re still coming to work despite being at high-risk for the disease and worrying that they’re putting family members at risk.

The Kroger worker in New Mexico, a single mother working to support herself and her 6-year-old son, was still on the fence about ignoring her doctor’s orders earlier this week. She needs the money to pay her mortgage and has come close to foreclosure before, she said. But her sister put the stakes into focus.

“She said, ‘Your son needs you more than this huge corporation.’ That sealed the deal,” she said. “I’ve got to stay home, and I’ve got to protect myself.”

Another woman, a 24-year-old who works for Kroger’s website in Portland, Oregon, told HuffPost she was exposed to a man who may have COVID-19 outside of work. However, he can’t get a test, so she cannot be sure. Official health recommendations say she should self-isolate for 14 days. Since her job mainly involves web production, she asked her managers if she could work from home during that period. 

Her request was denied, according to an email she shared with HuffPost. She was told to either come to the office or to stay home and use whatever accrued paid time off she had ― just 16 hours, she told HuffPost. She’s got a little money saved, but not enough to afford taking unpaid leave or risk getting fired.

“My biggest worry is what I’m going to do rentwise. I’m taking it day-by-day,” she told HuffPost.

Kroger’s insistence that she come in appears to contradict the company’s new coronavirus restrictions ― although, technically, maybe not as they’re fairly byzantine.

According to documents reviewed by HuffPost, someone who’s been exposed to a person with COVID-19 would be eligible for 14 days of paid leave. But this woman’s friend hasn’t been able to get a test; so it seems she would not be covered.

Part of Kroger guidelines for workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Part of Kroger guidelines for workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

And yet, also under company guidelines, anyone exposed to the virus is not supposed to come back to work unless they have self-quarantined for 14 days or tested negative for COVID-19 ― tests that are nearly impossible to come by.

The Portland-based employee said she has little choice but to sit tight, unpaid. 

“I’m pretty disappointed with how they’re handling everything,” she said. “I usually am not a huge complainer, but I think it’s just unfair that not everyone is given the same option of how to handle what’s going on and do what’s best for them.”

Kroger does offer some paid sick, personal and vacation time to its employees, but the time accrues over the course of the year. Relatively new employees or anyone who already took time off this year are out of luck. 

Because of limitations like these, about 189,000 Kroger workers do not have access to paid sick time, according to one recent survey.

The Portland worker just started in December. The New Mexico woman HuffPost spoke with said she used up a lot of her paid time off earlier this year when she had to be home with her son, who had the flu.

“I’m going through some crazy times, and what’s horrible is they’re making so much more money than normal,” she said. “And they can’t afford to take care of their employees or they don’t care to.” 

UPDATE: March 21 ― Kroger announced Saturday that it would expand its emergency leave policy to include those who were told to self-isolate by a health care professional. The company also said it would give small cash bonuses to associates ― $300 for full-time workers and $150 for part-time workers.

“I just got off the phone with my assistant store director, she gave me a full 40 hours for this past week and will do it for next will too!!!! Huge burden lifted!” the New Mexico worker told HuffPost in an email. 

 

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