They Fed America During Lockdown. Nearly Two Years Later, Many Grocery Workers Can’t Make Ends Meet.

Current wage rates for people in hourly jobs leave some unhoused, unable to buy food, or collecting cans to pay the bills.

Robin White has worked at Kroger supermarkets in Southern California for seven years and hopes for a promotion to manager, which would raise her pay from $16.65 an hour to $23 and increase her weekly hours from 28 to 40. With the extra income, she said, she and her 9-year-old son would be able to move into their own place, and she’d start saving up to go back to school and become a licensed nursing assistant.

Through parts of the first two years of the pandemic, they lived in their car, spending nights in the store’s parking garage. Whatever White could spare went toward the occasional luxury of a motel room.

“It wasn’t really often, but I would have to neglect certain bills, car note, just to be able to shower and have somewhere to lay down,” said White, who is 35 and has been a cashier at Ralphs branches in Los Angeles and Riverside, among the 2,800 grocery stores Kroger owns across the country under around 20 brand names. “Once they took the hazard pay, and they started cutting hours again, it was really bad.”

The pandemic brought renewed attention to the conditions of hourly laborers who keep America fed, and has led to wage increases in some sectors for the first time in years. Yet while the vaccine rollout reduced the risk of becoming severely ill from an on-the-job COVID infection for many essential workers, it also led to a rollback of company policies and government programs that helped them make ends meet in the early months of the crisis. As a result, many remain in financial circumstances every bit as precarious as they were before the pandemic began.

In a survey of around 36,000 Kroger hourly workers in Colorado, Washington, and California, commissioned by their local United Food and Commercial unions and released this week, 42% of respondents said they relied on borrowing money from friends or family to pay for basic needs over the last year, 34% said they cut portion sizes or skipped meals because they couldn't afford food, and 14% said they were unhoused.

Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, ended its $2-an-hour hazard pay raise two months into the pandemic. Last year, as government stimulus payments dried up and rent moratoriums expired, Kroger opted to close stores in at least three cities that passed laws ordering hazard pay raises at groceries, shutting down three supermarkets in Los Angeles, two in Seattle, and two in Long Beach, where, in a statement at the time, Kroger cited “the economic cost mandated” by the local ordinance increasing wages by $4 an hour.

Kroger declined to comment on specific claims in this story.

“As America’s grocer, we have balanced significant wage investments for our associates while keeping food affordable for the communities we serve,” company spokesperson Kristal Howard said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Our longstanding culture of opportunity has created an environment where many people, whether it be a cashier, clerk, stocker, or pharmacy technician, come for a job and stay for a career. Kroger has provided an incredible number of people with their first job, and we’re proud to play this role in our communities.”

After ticking slightly upward from 2019 to 2020, Kroger’s annual revenue rose 8% in 2021, to $132 billion. Senior executives each made $5 million or more in 2020, with CEO Rodney McMullen earning $22 million, nearly double his 2018 pay.

For the hourly workers inside the stores, current wage rates mean scrambling to pick up shifts, juggling bill deadlines, and finding alternative means to making ends meet, according to four Kroger workers from three states who spoke with BuzzFeed News. Even in states like California where local minimum wages are twice the federal rate, higher rent prices and other living costs mean that many workers receive paychecks that don’t cover the bills.

Jeanne, a 58-year-old who has worked at Ralphs in a Southern California suburb for three years and asked that her last name be withheld for fear of losing her job, said that she collects cans on her 4-mile walk back from work, filling as many as 50 garbage bags a month to earn the extra $150 or so she needs to cover expenses, including $1,500 in rent for the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her teenage son. A neighbor buys them groceries every few weeks “just because she knew I was a single mom and I was working my tail off and I had no money,” Jeanne said. “If she didn’t leave me eggs and bread, my son and I would starve.”

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During the first year of the pandemic, Robin White said, she was often able to clock 40 hours on weeks when outbreaks knocked colleagues out of commission or resignations left shifts open, but once the stimulus payments ended, hiring increased and her hours dipped into the mid-20s for most of 2021.

In recent weeks, the Omicron wave has opened more shifts for workers who aren’t out sick, while leaving them understaffed once again. In the second week of January, White said that half of the cashiers on her shift at the Riverside store were out with COVID. Janet Wainwright, a meat cutter and shop steward at a Kroger in Yorktown, Virginia, estimated that around a dozen of her coworkers had called in with positive tests.

“We've had more people out than we've ever had since the beginning of the pandemic,” Wainwright said that week.

Unlike during the first year of the pandemic, Kroger no longer informs workers when a colleague tests positive, nor maintains the cleaning protocols implemented early in the crisis, according to Wainwright, White, and Jeanne.

“Those safety policies ended last year, in the spring, when things kinda leveled out,” Wainwright said. In the first year of the pandemic, “when somebody was sick, they sent in a cleaning crew at night to clean that department. That don’t happen no more.”

Kroger did not respond to questions about its COVID safety protocols. In a statement, the company said that it required employees to wear masks and offered a $100 bonus to workers who get vaccinated. “Additionally, we created and amended several workplace policies at the onset of the pandemic to support our associates during immense uncertainty,” company spokesperson Howard said. “The safety of our associates and customers has remained our top priority.”

While Congress passed a law early in the pandemic requiring two weeks of federally funded paid leave for workers showing COVID symptoms or caring for a person who tested positive, it didn’t apply to companies with at least 500 employees, and a BuzzFeed News investigation in April 2020 reported that at least 24 major retail and food companies, including Kroger, maintained sick leave policies less generous than what the government established for smaller businesses.

Kroger now grants paid sick leave to vaccinated employees who test positive and offers free at-home tests to workers who show symptoms. As a Thanksgiving bonus, the company gave hourly workers $100 in-store credit and 1,000 fuel points, which amounts to $1 off per gallon of gas. Since the start of the pandemic, the company has given out $1,200 in bonuses to each part-time hourly worker and $1,760 to each full-time hourly worker “to reward and recognize them for their efforts,” Kroger spokesperson Howard said in a statement.

Jeanne said she had once made $40 an hour at the insurance company where she’d worked for 27 years. After the father of her two children died unexpectedly in 2008, she quit the job to grieve and look after her children, who were 5 and 11 at the time.

“We were going through a healing process,” she said.

When she returned to the job market, the recession left her with fewer options. She worked as a caregiver for older adults for a while, before eventually getting hired at Ralphs.

“I’m very thankful,” Jeanne said. “Trying to find a job at my age, it’s not easy.”

White had been a security guard, a job she found “too dangerous,” before applying to Ralphs, a job that “fits the person I am,” she said. “I’m loving. I’m a nurturer. I love food. I love what I do. My Lord and savior has kept me safe to feed these people.”

But she wished her job paid her enough “just to be comfortable,” she said. “Just to have a home and pay my bills and not have to struggle to do that.”

Like Jeanne, White has needed the generosity of others to patch holes in the country’s safety net that left her unable to pay for basic needs. Recently, she and her son moved in with her cousin, who has a spare room for the foster children she provides temporary housing for. When kids cycle into the home, White sleeps on the floor.

“In the struggle you have no choice but to make it work, just making the best decisions for what’s most important at that time,” she said. “Saving money. Instead of fast food, ramen and sandwiches. Can’t go out and party, no alcoholic beverages — whoever you were before, you can’t do none of those things.”

White said has tried to shield her son from the impact of the challenges. During the months they lived in their car, she framed the experience as an adventure.

“As a mom, you have to kinda like make it fun for the kid because the kid don’t really understand,” she said. “In his head, he’s like, ‘Mom, this is fun, I wanna go back.’ He didn’t know what was really going on.”

On his last report card, she said, he had all A’s and B’s, and his teacher told her his reading skills were at the top of his class. By the time he is old enough for college, she said, she hopes to have enough saved up to cover the costs.

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