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'You There Boy! Run To The Kroger And Buy The Prize Turkey!' 'But Sir, It Bravely Shut Down Rather Than Pay The Workers The CEO's Rightful Bonus!'
National retailer Kroger announced this week it would shutter two Southern California stores rather than go along with a Long Beach city law that would require the grocery chain to pay employees an extra $4 an hour in "hero pay," or if you prefer to see things less euphemistically, hazard pay, since being inside a grocery store all day is risky. The company contended that no one could possibly make a living selling groceries under such unfair conditions, except for how 1) the ordinance applies to most of the other grocery stores in the city too and 2) the duration of the law, passed just last month, is just 120 days, subject to renewal if the pandemic in California doesn't get better than it is now.
The ordinance applies to sellers of foodstuffs that have more than 300 employees nationally, and that are staffed with at least 15 workers per location. But rather than pay employees a higher salary for four months, Kroger, which does business under many names, is shutting down two stores, a Ralph's and a Food 4 Less.
This isn't the first time Kroger has made the news for putting profits over employees during the pandemic; as we wrote back in May, the company was pressured to fix its shitty sick-leave policy after media reports, and it dropped its own $2 an hour "hero bonus" for workers even as it paid executives millions in bonuses, including a $21 million bonus for CEO Rodney McMullen. As hero journo Judd Legum reported in a subscribers-only newsletter, the executives' bonuses were partially dependent on having plenty of "free cash flow," which would have been reduced by wasting too much money compensating employees. But at least Kroger ran a lot of ads praising their "associates" for doing a great job in these troubled times.
As for the closures in Long Beach, Fox Business gave the retailer's plight some very sympathetic coverage , highlighting statements from a Kroger spokesperson and from the California Grocers Association, which has filed a lawsuit against the Long Beach ordinance. It's possible a representative of the workers may have had something to contribute, but why would Fox want to hear from the peons? Weirdly, Los Angeles TV station KTLA managed to find some workers and allies who support the law and rallied outside the Food 4 Less store Wednesday to protest the closures, so we'll foreground those comments before we get to the company flacks.
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who pushed for the law, joined the workers at the protest and told KTLA,
I don't think anyone that has shopped from this last six months to a year can look into the eyes of one of these workers and tell them that they don't deserve an additional few bucks an hour for the incredible work that they've been doing during this pandemic.
Garcia has cited a Brookings Institution study showing that grocery retailers have been doing pretty well during the pandemic, pointing out that while it ended the $2/hour "hero pay" in May last year, Kroger had "[doubled] its profits and [spent] nearly a billion dollars in 2020 to buy back its own stock shares."
Also at the rally, Andrea Zindler, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 324, told KTLA she believed the closures were meant to send a "chilling" message to other municipalities that might be considering mandates similar to Long Beach's.
Kroger, for its part, issued many many crocodile tears in a statement about how unfair it all is, because it pays workers plenty, and that the "irreparable harm that will come to employees and local citizens" because of the closures was entirely the fault of the Long Beach City Council. The city had interfered in God's Free Market Domain by attempting "to pick winners and losers," you see, because the hero pay law didn't apply to some big box stores that also sell groceries, like Target and Walmart. Kroger spox Kathy Fairbanks called that "a violation of equal protection."
Happily for those equal rights advocates at Kroger, City Councilmember Mary Zendejas, who authored the ordinance, saw it only as a first step, according to her chief of staff, Ray Morquecho, who assured KTLA in an email that Zendejas "feels that Target and Walmart stores that sell groceries should be included" in a hazard pay ordinance for more workers. See, Kroger? You may get your wish!
Also too, the Washington Post reportsthat on Tuesday, two other cities, Oakland and Los Angeles, voted to mandate temporary $5 an hour hazard pay as well.
In conclusion, Kroger is scum and I'm going to keep shopping at the local grocery chain that's employee-owned, the end. If one of these is your usual grocer — Ralphs, Dillons, Smith's, King Soopers, Fry's, QFC, City Market, Owen's, Jay C, Pay Less, Baker's, Gerbes, Harris Teeter, Pick 'n Save, Metro Market, Mariano's, Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, Foods Co — perhaps you're reconsidering that too.
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