Grocery Companies Denied Us Hazard Pay—So We Went Over Their Heads

Above photo: Grocery workers demanded hazard pay last May outside a Kroger-owned store in Burien, Washington. Kroger said no, but ultimately the city council said yes. UFCW Local 21.

We’d like to tell you a story of our struggles with Covid and our safety concerns—and how we ended up getting two city councils to enact hazard pay by law.

As grocery store workers, we were called heroes early in the pandemic—but over time, we felt less and less valued. Expendable. Yet we are not victims; we rose up to demand better. To paraphrase Fredrick Douglass, we certainly did not get everything we fought for, but we certainly fought for everything we got.

The two of us work at different companies—one at a Kroger-owned store in Seattle and the other at a suburban store run by PCC Markets, a small independent grocery chain. We work in different parts of the store, and in different jobs. Despite all that, we hold a lot more in common than what separates us.

Thirty minutes north of us is the city of Everett, wheWare the very first U.S. Covid hospitalization case was treated in January 2020—treated, as it turns out, by health care workers who are also members of our union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21.

Back then we all knew little about this new virus. Out of caution and to protect our workplaces, our union reached out to employers. Kroger quickly agreed to provide hazard pay of $2 per hour, quarantine pay, more flexible schedules to help with school closures, additional paid sick leave, improved safety standards, and better sanitization in our stores.

Billions in profits

But two months later, in May, Kroger announced without any explanation that it would eliminate our hazard pay, even as profits soared and hazards increased.

Workers came together in our stores and with other UFCW locals in Washington, California, and Colorado. We held signs in front of stores, organized press conferences, and pushed back hard. Kroger got a lot of bad press.

In the end, the company moved ahead with eliminating hazard pay, despite making $2.6 billion profit for the year, but we got the company to provide a one-time bonus.

At PCC Community Markets, despite our efforts, we didn’t receive hazard pay in the first wave of the pandemic, even while Kroger workers did. Because PCC dragged its feet, we were not able to secure all the improvements and protections that our union reached with the big chains. That was a shame.

Understaffed and worn down

The pandemic raged on. Despite rules limiting capacity, our workplaces were often overcrowded, making it nearly impossible to practice social distancing. Some customers refused to wear masks.

Thanks to our union, workers in Washington state had gone into the pandemic better than many. Voters had passed a statewide initiative back in 2016 for a higher minimum wage and paid sick days; our union led the fight. These protections, though far from perfect, gave us higher wages and the ability to stay home without losing pay if we got sick—making our state more resilient to the impacts of the pandemic.

But we still needed and deserved hazard pay. We were being asked to take on more work with fewer staff; the stress and ongoing fear were wearing us down. As the pandemic stormed on, more workers were out sick and safety standards were not followed. All this contributed to having too few staff to run our stores.

All summer, fall, and winter, we could not get PCC or Kroger to agree to establish or reinstate hazard pay. We held a large press conference and action in front of the Burien Fred Meyer (one of the largest Kroger stores in our region) that got widespread TV, print, and radio coverage. We held a series of Zoom conferences that attracted additional press.

We ran online petitions for hazard pay and wore hazard pay buttons at work. We joined a social media action where grocery workers around the country posted photos of ourselves with signs. We even hired a mobile billboard truck to drive around.

While these actions did not get the companies to alter their policy, the exposure did educate the public and helped solidify popular support. That was critical as we launched our push to pass hazard pay in our city halls.

Took it to the city, then the county

After receiving more than 800 emails from workers and community supporters and hearing our testimony, in January, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed $4-per-hour hazard pay for grocery store workers.

PCC CEO Suzanne Monford wrote to the mayor, urging her not to sign the bill into law. But we had already spoken with the mayor and secured her commitment.

Despite a lawsuit by the grocery trade association, the law took effect on February 3. Grocery store workers in Seattle got hazard pay for the first time since last May. (Spoiler alert—a federal judge dismissed the grocery association’s case and the law remains in place.)

Then we spoke with the city council of Burien, a suburb of Seattle, and they voted on February 8 for $5-per-hour hazard pay for local grocery store workers. Soon after, the King County Council passed hazard pay for stores in unincorporated places in the county.

After PCC got a lot of public backlash over its opposition to the new hazard pay in Seattle and Burien, things turned in our favor. Our bargaining team was able to enter negotiations with the company. Over a couple weeks, we reached an agreement that provided $4-per-hour hazard pay until early June for all UFCW Local 21 members at PCC—including workers in stores beyond King County. We also won additional quarantine pay that PCC workers had not had before.

Meanwhile our fellow grocery workers won hazard pay laws in many cities in California, from Long Beach to San Francisco. They also won hazard pay in Los Angeles County.

In both Seattle and California, Kroger responded to the passage of the hazard pay laws by announcing plans to close stores. This was clear retaliation against the grocery workers in cities that had passed laws, and a signal to workers in other cities considering taking similar action. We feel that this was a direct attempt to bully workers and the community.

Always more to do

These temporary new laws will help grocery store workers overcome some of the hardships of the pandemic. They will also help compensate a little for the extra work and stress we face on the job.

But we still have work to do. There are hundreds of thousands of grocery workers across the nation who have not had hazard pay since May. And our collective work is what made possible all the extra profit for the big national grocery store chains. While we would be surprised to see it, we’d hope the hazard pay would help our employers hire and retain additional staff to do the hard work of running our stores.

By taking action together, we forced our employers to do what they were unwilling to do of their own accord. We were able to secure millions of dollars in hazard pay—a small share of the billions in profits that these companies have made since the pandemic began. These laws helped all grocery store workers in our cities, not just union workers.

We want to expand this to other cities, supporting grocery store workers all across the nation in getting the hazard pay we all deserve.