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Essential workers are losing their hazard pay even though the hazard isn’t over

Kroger and other companies provided “hero pay” to employees as the pandemic ratcheted up the risk to their safety. For many, it will end this month.

A grocery worker unpacks boxes of food outside of a Brooklyn grocery store on April 23.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

At Megan McHonie’s job, social distancing is all but impossible.

A floral clerk at a King Soopers grocery store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she comes into close contact with shoppers every day. “When I’m outside watering the plants, the customers don’t keep within six feet of me at all,” she told Vox. “They’re actually within touching distance.”

McHonie has been anxious about coming to work during the pandemic, but one thing she appreciated was the $2-an-hour “hero bonus” that King Soopers’ parent company, Kroger, gave essential workers like her starting at the end of March.

But Kroger’s “hero bonus” raises ended on May 16, even as coronavirus cases continued to rise across the country. The grocer isn’t alone — other companies that instituted some form of additional pay for workers earlier this year in recognition of their position on the front lines are now rolling back those increases, even though the danger is far from gone. Starbucks, for example, is planning to end a $3-per-hour raise for workers at the end of May, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, some companies that employ essential workers right now have seen increased sales and boosted executive pay in recent months. Kroger, for example, saw same-store sales increase 30 percent in March as customers stocked up on groceries, according to Winsight Grocery Business. And Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen received a 21 percent increase in compensation last year, boosting his income to more than $14 million. The company has not responded to Vox’s requests for comment.

Many essential workers, by contrast, are making less than a living wage even with the increase in pay. And they urgently need more money both to pay their bills and to stay safe during the pandemic, says Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies hazard pay. For example, many low-wage workers can’t afford cars, meaning they risk exposure to the virus on public transit during their commutes to work. Millions of essential workers also lack health insurance, jeopardizing their ability to seek treatment and making any illness potentially financially devastating for them and their families. “When your employer gives you low wages,” Kinder said, “those low wages make you less resilient to the disease.”

Democrats in Congress have proposed a plan to give essential workers a pay raise higher than the small amounts companies have been offering, and to extend it through the end of the coronavirus crisis. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has put forth a plan to give workers a similar raise, though for a shorter period. Neither is likely to move forward without the support of more Republicans in Congress.

Meanwhile, workers like McHonie continue to put themselves at risk while their CEOs make millions. “For him to line his pockets while we’re suffering on the front lines is not okay,” she said of McMullen. “It’s selfish and it’s evil.”

Hazard pay used to be associated with the military. The pandemic changed that.

Before the pandemic, hazard pay was often something military or government employees got when they took on dangerous assignments, Kinder said. But now, people who never thought they were taking a dangerous job, such as grocery store workers, are facing daily exposure to a deadly virus. And overwhelmingly, they’re asking for a raise.

In her interviews with dozens of essential workers in recent weeks, Kinder said, “Everyone brought up the issue of hazard pay.”

Several large companies did institute some form of additional pay for essential workers. Like Kroger and Starbucks, for example, Amazon and Target gave workers a $2-per-hour raise. Walmart paid bonuses of $300 to full-time workers and $150 to part-timers in April, and plans to do so again in June.

Some workers, however, say such amounts are a drop in the bucket when it comes to compensating them for what they’re facing. Kevin Smith, a meat department manager at a King Soopers store in Longmont, Colorado, says customers aren’t following social distancing guidelines in his store.

“The other day I had a customer that kept stepping toward me,” he said. “I would take a step back, trying to keep some distance between us, and I accidentally bumped into a customer behind me.”

Smith has been sleeping in a separate bedroom from his wife, who has a congenital heart defect, to avoid exposing her to the virus. “I worry about being exposed to all these people and bringing it home,” he said. “I don’t think I’d ever get over it if something happened to her.”

For him, an extra $2 an hour “is not going to make a difference,” he said, adding that for many part-time workers, that works out to only about $40 a week.

And now, even that small increase is in jeopardy, with Kroger ending its “hero bonus” raises on May 16. After pressure from workers’ unions, the company said in a statement to Supermarket News on May 8 that it was evaluating compensation.

“Our temporary ‘hero bonus’ is scheduled to end in mid-May. In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as our country recovers,” the statement read. “Our commitment is that we will continue to listen and be responsive, empowering us to make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business. We continuously evaluate employee compensation and benefits packages.”

Then, on May 15, the company announced that instead of continuing the hourly raises, it would give workers a lump-sum bonus it calls “Thank You Pay.” The bonus — $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-time employees — will be paid in two installments, on May 30 and June 18. But it’s not clear what happens after that.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which represents Kroger workers, decried the decision to replace salary increases with a bonus.

“The reality is that Kroger is choosing to ignore this pandemic,” UFCW International president Marc Perrone said in a May 16 statement. “This is not how we treat heroes in America.”

And with their hourly pay bump set to expire in mid-May, Smith said, “a lot of the workers feel so disrespected. We’re beginning to call it ‘zero pay.’”

There are proposals in Congress to extend hazard pay, but their future is uncertain

Outside of Kroger, many other workers are set to lose their pay increases as well. At Amazon and Starbucks, extra compensation is scheduled to expire at the end of May. Dollar Tree and Chipotle also instituted hazard pay for workers but similarly plan to roll it back this month, according to the business watchdog group Just Capital.

Hazard pay at Target was scheduled to expire at the end of May, but the company announced on May 18 that it would extend the increase through July 4. But of all the companies Just is tracking, only the cable operator Charter Communications has made its hazard pay permanent.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases continue to multiply. And with states beginning to reopen, and Americans moving around more, essential workers could face more exposure to the virus. “There’s nothing to suggest that these jobs are safer now than they were even two weeks ago,” Kinder said. “In fact, as coronavirus is further spread throughout the population, it’s likely that these workers are even more at risk.”

Many never got hazard pay in the first place. The raises were concentrated at large corporations, such as grocery store chains, that saw a spike in demand during the pandemic and needed to hire new employees, Kinder said. Many workers in the health care industry — including those who make low wages, such as cooks in nursing homes and home health aides have seen no jump in wages even though they face very high risk, Kinder explained.

The HEROES Act, House Democrats’ proposal for the next pandemic stimulus package, includes a Heroes Fund that would provide many essential workers — including health care workers and grocery store employees — with a raise of $13 an hour, far more than what most chains have offered. And the raises would last through the end of the coronavirus crisis, rather than expiring this month. Senate Democrats have introduced a similar proposal.

Romney, meanwhile, on May 1 put forth a proposal he calls Patriot Pay to give essential workers up to an additional $12 an hour. His plan would last only through July and, unlike Democrats’ proposals, calls for cost-sharing between the federal government and employers.

But so far, he is the only congressional Republican to express interest in hazard pay, Kinder said. And Democrats will need the support of Senate Republicans if they hope to secure additional pay for essential workers.

These workers are in dire need of more money. Even before the crisis hit, many were struggling to make ends meet. One in three essential workers lives in a household making less than $40,000 a year, as Annie Lowrey reports at the Atlantic. One in seven has no health insurance, and millions rely on food stamps.

And the pandemic has made living in poverty more dangerous than ever. Many low-wage workers have to get to work on crowded public transit, Kinder said — she recently spoke to one worker who makes five transfers as part of his commute. Many are also living in multigenerational households, where they risk spreading the coronavirus to children or older relatives. One worker, a housekeeper at a nursing facility, told Kinder that if her wages were increased, she could afford to live apart from her son, a cancer survivor who has asthma and is at especially high risk.

“Every single worker that I’ve talked to is so much more worried about what this means for their loved ones than themselves,” Kinder said.

Meanwhile, even in the midst of an economic crisis, some of the companies planning to roll back hazard pay are watching sales soar.

Around Mother’s Day, McHonie’s King Soopers store “crushed our sales goals,” she said. In the floral department, “I sold out of product for two days.”

“I think I deserve a pay raise,” she said.

Update, May 18: This story has been updated with new developments in hazard pay by Kroger and Target, as well as a statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union.

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