Kroger is eliminating some COVID-19 benefits for unvaccinated employees, a move to encourage inoculations as the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate faces legal challenges.
The Cincinnati-based grocery chain told employees last week that it will no longer provide two weeks of paid emergency leave for unvaccinated employees who contract COVID-19, unless local jurisdictions require otherwise. Kroger will also add a $50 monthly surcharge to company health plans for unvaccinated managers and other nonunion employees, according to a memo viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Both policies are effective Jan. 1, the memo said.
Kroger, which reported robust quarterly financial results earlier this month — and is one of the biggest employers in the U.S. with almost half a million full-time and part-time employees — is tightening pandemic-related policies for workers as U.S. businesses face continued uncertainty over federal vaccination mandates. Rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in November require employers with 100 or more workers to ensure employees are vaccinated or take weekly COVID-19 tests by Jan. 4.
Whether those rules, which were targeted by lawsuits across the country, will take effect is uncertain. Last week, a U.S. court blocked the plan to mandate vaccines for federal contractors. GE and others have since suspended vaccine requirements for employees. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati is considering whether to reinstate the administrator’s rules for employers.
Supermarkets rely on hundreds of thousands of front-line workers, but most haven’t enforced a vaccine or test mandate or changed their policies. Industry executives have said they are hesitant about making big changes, fearing workers may quit if required to get vaccinated or tested weekly. They have also said costs continue to rise for labor and transportation.
A Kroger spokeswoman said the company is modifying policies to encourage safe behaviors as it prepares to navigate the next phase of the pandemic, and that the changes are designed to create a healthier workplace and workforce. She said the company considered feedback from employees and customers to guide its policies, and that Kroger will continue to encourage sick employees to stay home and seek the support of a physician if they contract the coronavirus. Unvaccinated employees can take paid time off or apply for unpaid leave, she said. Kroger has been motivating staffers to get vaccinated with a $100 payment.
Kroger’s COVID-19 policy changes don’t apply to employees with approved medical or religious accommodations, according to the memo. The company said in the memo that it continues to prepare and develop responses to OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
Taking away paid COVID-19 sick leave is risky because many hourly wage workers likely don’t have the savings to stay at home, said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which describes itself as nonpartisan. She said infected employees who needed income could go to work and endanger other employees and customers.
“We are almost two years into the pandemic, but we are not out of the woods,” Ms. Kinder said, given the spread of the omicron variant.
The retail industry has faced months long labor shortages. Some store workers have quit because they switched industries or were worried about spreading or contracting COVID-19 in public settings, industry executives have said. Others have stayed out of the job market because of child-care duties or savings they accumulated during the pandemic.
Many grocery chains have been offering payments to encourage vaccinations. Companies have also kept plastic barriers at cash registers, are encouraging social distancing, and are sanitizing stores more frequently than they did before the pandemic. Most have ended hazard for workers in stores and warehouses. Mask Policies for employees remain across many supermarket chains, though some stores have struggled to manage customers who show up without face coverings or refuse to wear them properly.