Maclola Orozco wears protective gear as a precaution against the coronavirus as she restocks shelves at El Rancho grocery store in Dallas, Monday, April 13, 2020. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Maclola Orozco wears protective gear as a precaution against the coronavirus as she restocks shelves at a grocery store in Dallas in April. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

‘Heroes’ No More: Grocers Are Already Clawing Back COVID-19 Worker Benefits

Kroger revoked its “Hero Pay” in May, while public health experts warn of COVID-19 surges as Texas reopens.


A version of this story ran in the July / August 2020 issue.

Appreciation Pay, Proud Pay, Service Pay. The kaleidoscope of PR names all amount to one thing: a small raise for the poorly paid food retail workers who risk their lives so the rest of us can eat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now—as infections persist and measures to reopen the Texas economy threaten a resurgence—companies are already clawing back these meager benefits. 

Kroger, which is the nation’s largest grocer and operates stores in Houston and North Texas, terminated its “Hero Pay” on May 17, about two months after instating the $2 hourly raise. Following outcry from employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), Kroger followed up with “Thank You Pay”—a one-off bonus between $200 and $400 to be paid in two chunks in May and June. But many workers see the bonus as a poor substitute and a cynical move to quiet bad press. 

“They’re calling it a ‘thank you bonus,’ but we think it’s just because we were complaining enough when they took the ‘Hero Pay’ away,” says Candice Oglesby, a 34-year-old floral manager at a Dallas Kroger, and mother of two. Oglesby preferred the longer-term hourly raise, which also boosted her overtime rate, to the bonus, which she describes as covering only “snacks for a couple weeks” for her kids. Researchers predict a surge in infections in Dallas this summer, so Oglesby remains at risk. “We’re still working through a pandemic, people are still getting infected, so why take anything back?” 

Jackie Ryan, a cashier at a Kroger in the Dallas suburb of Cedar Hill, notes that the grocer is acknowledging the ongoing danger by requiring that workers wear masks, and maintaining plexiglass barriers and enhanced cleaning routines. She thinks the company is simply eager to rush back to pre-pandemic labor costs. “They don’t want anyone to get used to getting paid an extra $2 an hour; they don’t want that to be the norm,” she says. 

Asked for comment, a Kroger spokesperson, April Martin, wrote: “Kroger continues to provide a safe environment for millions of customers to access fresh, affordable food during the pandemic. We are investing more than $800 million to reward associates and to safeguard both employees and customers.”

Kroger has drawn more heat than some competitors in part because its unionized workers have taken their concerns to the media. But the company’s behavior isn’t altogether unique. A suite of companies, including Whole Foods, Giant, and Starbucks withdrew hourly raises at the end of May. H-E-B extended its $2 raise through June 21, and Target through Independence Day, but neither have suggested they’ll make the boosts permanent. 

The state of Texas is behaving similarly. In May, the labor department announced it’s no longer taking applications for a program that expanded access to subsidized childcare for essential workers such as grocery employees. The program offered three months of childcare with reduced out-of-pocket costs, less required paperwork, and significantly loosened income requirements compared to the state’s normal program. 

According to a UFCW tally, at least 68 grocery workers had died from COVID-19 as of late May and more than 10,000 had been infected or exposed—a certain undercount. The union has called on big food retailers to release internal estimates to get a more accurate picture with little success. UFCW President Marc Perrone believes companies are ignoring the long-term trajectory of the virus—including the specter of an autumn wracked by both COVID and influenza. The risks “have not diminished in any way shape form or fashion,” Perrone said in May. “These food workers did not stop becoming heroes on one particular day.”

Read more from the Observer: