Grocery Store Chain Kroger Is Planning To End 'Hero Pay'

(NPR) - The nation's largest grocery store chain ends its so-called "hero pay" — an extra $2 an hour — this week. But with no end in sight for the pandemic, unions and workers are asking for an extension.

Grocery Store Chain Kroger Is Planning To End 'Hero Pay'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For nearly two months now, some frontline workers at grocery stores have received extra pay, a kind of hazard pay for working during the pandemic. That will end this weekend for thousands of Kroger employees, though the company did just announce a one-time bonus for its workers. From member station WVXU in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson reports.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Every worker inside this modern suburban Kroger store east of Cincinnati is wearing a face mask. That's one of the employee requirements company wide. One-way aisles and Plexiglas panels at the checkout are a few of the other safety measures this Cincinnati-based company has implemented. Even so, clerk Debbie Griffin (ph), who has worked at another Kroger store west of here for 41 years, says she doesn't feel safe. She cites a recent experience with a customer as an example.

DEBBIE GRIFFIN: She's in my line. She's coughing. And I start to back up. And she says, oh, don't worry, it's just a smoker's cough. And I'm thinking, I don't know if it's a smoker's cough or not. Why are you in here?

THOMPSON: Griffin is concerned about catching the virus and bringing it home to her children and grandchildren. While she's glad to hear about the bonus, she wants the hourly pay bump to continue until she doesn't have to wear a mask anymore. The so-called hero bonus was paying her an additional $2 an hour.

GRIFFIN: Well, $2 is nothing to The Kroger Co. What we do for them is ridiculous.

THOMPSON: In an interview this afternoon, Kroger Vice President Keith Dailey says the company will now pay full-time workers a one-time bonus of $400 and part-time workers $200, but that hourly wage boost would end.

KEITH DAILEY: It really follows from how we've tried to orient ourselves throughout this entire pandemic as a company and as a leadership team which is to always strive to find the right balance between our most urgent priority, which has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers, with our social obligation.

THOMPSON: Last week, United Food and Commercial Workers Regional President Kevin Garvey asked Kroger to extend the $2 an hour pay bump.

KEVIN GARVEY: For the work that these people do and the exposure that they take, it's worth every bit of it. And it's just the right thing to do as far as we're concerned.

THOMPSON: Jeff Wells, who writes about the grocery industry, thinks much of this is about corporate messaging.

JEFF WELLS: You know, it's a boost in terms of public relations. A lot of them are still coming to the point where they need to make this decision of, do they extend, and if so, how long? And that's very difficult because, you know, cases are not going down in a lot of areas. And that risk still remains high for a lot of workers.

THOMPSON: Out in Kroger's parking lot, customer David Renzenberger (ph) is putting his groceries in his car. He has no problem voicing his support for the workers and thinks extra pay is warranted.

DAVID RENZENBERGER: And I think every company has to look at it from the point of view of you're asking all of your employees to do something that they didn't expect to do, that when you hired them, you didn't say, oh, yeah, and by the way, you're going to do this as well.

THOMPSON: Renzenberger says they're showing up to work to keep their jobs. If they didn't, it's likely some Kroger stores would struggle to remain open and keep food on the shelves for consumers. For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.