Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

“The simple fact is that grocery store workers are putting their lives on the line every day that they walk into the store.”

Grocery store workers have been essential to Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. At mortal risk, they perform manual labor for mostly minimum wage, often have to provide their own PPE, and are called on to enforce masking rules with belligerent citizens. 

In Manhattan, for example, two men attacked several Trader Joe’s employees last month when asked to wear masks. A Pennsylvania man was charged with fighting workers at a Monroeville Giant Eagle grocery store when he attempted to enter the store without a face mask. And a Sparta, New Jersey man, asked to leave a store because he was unmasked, coughed on an employee while claiming to be positive for coronavirus.

So why have Senate Republicans ignored hazard pay in their proposal for the next economic stimulus bill?

The U.S. Department of Labor defines hazard pay as additional pay for workers who perform hazardous tasks or work involving physical hardship. The HEROES Act, part of the second stimulus package passed by House Democrats, would allocate $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers, giving an extra $13 per hour up to a maximum of $25,000 for those earning under $200,000 a year. The legislation would also provide a lump sum of the hazard pay to the family if an essential worker dies while working through the pandemic. 

“The simple fact is that grocery store workers are putting their lives on the line every day that they walk into the store,” California Sen. Kamala Harris wrote in a recent CNN op-ed with UFCW International President Marc Perrone. “They work hard. They work long hours. And they need to support their families just like all of us do.”

But the Senate’s $1 trillion HEALS Act introduced at the end of July did not include any hazard pay provisions. It did, however, include liability protections that would prevent workers from suing their employers if they contracted the virus while on the job.

“This is a middle finger to those … who have been putting their lives on the line in the fight against COVID-19,” tweeted Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat from New York. “$0 for states and cities, no hazard pay and slashed unemployment benefits.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called the proposal a disaster. “Workers on farms, in grocery stores, in hospitals, in meatpacking plants, and across the country have been risking their lives for low pay to keep this country running,” Sanders said in an MSNBC interview. “We must give them more than lip service. They deserve hazard pay, sick leave, health care and safe workplaces.” Vermont, like some other states, is using monies provided in this year’s initial coronavirus stimulus package to create its own hazard pay program. 

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Grocery store workers are in an extremely high-risk labor group for coronavirus, given the sheer numbers of the public they interact with inside closed ventilation systems on a daily basis. According to United Food and Commercial Workers International, a union representing 1.3 million grocery, meatpacking, and food processing employees, 97 grocery workers have died nationwide and 7,188 grocery workers have been infected, as of Aug. 7. Those numbers increase when accounting for workers who are not members of the union. 

Many stores, however, are not compensating workers for the continual risks they face. Kroger, Albertsons, and Amazon-owned Whole Foods—some of the biggest grocery chains in America—dropped the hazard wage in June that had been provided at the start of the pandemic. Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, explained pulling hazard pay for its nearly 100,000 grocery workers by saying the company is “planning for the long term” and “continuing to explore new ways to support” its employees.

Kroger stopped hazard pay for its 460,000 grocery workers, pointing to paid emergency leave and other benefits.

“Same store sales up 18% and operating profits up over 50% from the first quarter in 2019,” UFCW Local 75 President Kevin Garvey of Cincinnati told local media. “I do believe Kroger can afford to continue the additional hero pay. The pandemic is not going away. Test positives continue to increase as does the risk to exposure.”

A recent national poll of 4,000 UFCW grocery workers found that over half of workers worry about bringing COVID-19 home to their families, and that nearly seven out of 10 workers say their employer is not enforcing mask mandates.

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“Grocery store workers and thousands of others are on the front lines of this pandemic. UFCW members are risking their lives so that Americans can keep food on their table. They’re keeping our society going — and their paychecks should reflect that,” Sen. Sherrod Brown said at a July 17 press conference. “If workers deserved hazard pay in April, they certainly deserve it now.”