The Kroger Co. said late Feb. 5 that it would provide a one-time bonus of $100 to all associates who receive the full manufacturer-recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and is offering a separate “thank-you” bonus to hourly workers in the form of $100 store credits and 1,000 fuel points.
The announcement comes as the Cincinnati-based retailer absorbs pressure on multiple fronts over so-called “hero pay” bonuses for workers, and seeks to encourage its workers to receive the vaccine. Kroger came under sharp criticism this month following a recent decision to close two stores in Long Beach, Calif., where local officials passed an ordinance requiring a $4 hourly pay raise for essential workers like grocery employees.
Kroger had argued the Long Beach ordinance—similar to separate legislation industry players have also resisted in places such as Seattle—was “misguided,” overstepped collective bargaining agreements with its union workers, and was unfairly applied to some companies but not others. The stance was widely criticized and drawn particular rebuke from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, whose local unions represent a majority of Kroger’s nearly 500,000 employees.
Kroger faced similar pressures last year, both before enacting a temporary $2-per-hour hero-pay bonus effective in late March, and again after discontinuing the premium late May. The extra pay—which included a separate bonus following its expiration—acknowledged the explosive sales growth that came with the onset of the pandemic last year and the effect of temporary closures of alternative food venues such as restaurants. Grocery employees at that time were deemed “essential” workers exempt from “stay-at-home” orders.
The vaccine benefit ties extra pay to a safer workplace and follows similar incentives announced by some competitors in recent weeks. Retailers including Kroger have advocated to have their workers designated as priority recipients of the vaccine but to this point, have stopped short of requiring their workers be vaccinated.
According to recent published research, about half of all Americans have expressed hesitancy over receiving the shots. Lidl U.S., among the first U.S. retailers to announced it was providing bonus incentives for vaccines, said nearly 80% of its workers intended to get the shot.
“We know that the most effective defense against this pandemic comes in the form of the COVID-19 vaccine and the continuation of the rigorous safety precautions we’ve established across our stores, manufacturing facilities and supply chain,” Marc Watkins, Kroger’s chief medical officer, said in a statement. "We are strongly encouraging all customers and associates to receive the vaccine to curb the spread of COVID-19, and we'll do all we can to ensure they have access as soon as it's available."
Kroger said the store and fuel credit bonuses would be automatically loaded onto its workers’ loyalty card accounts on Feb. 11. The one-time $100 vaccine payment will be offered to all associates who present appropriate proof of vaccination to their human resources representative. Associates who cannot receive the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons will have the option of completing an educational health and safety course to receive the payment, the company said.
The new bonus represents an additional $50 million investment toward worker compensation and safety measures Kroger has made since the pandemic onset.
“Through the unknowns of this pandemic, our associates have risen to the challenge and shown the true meaning of our purpose—to feed the human spirit,” said Tim Massa, Kroger’s chief people officer. “Since March, we have invested more than $1.5 billion to both reward our associates and to safeguard our associates and customers through the implementation of dozens of safety measures that we continue to execute today. We’ve also welcomed more than 100,000 new associates to The Kroger Family of Companies. As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, we’re increasing our investment to not only recognize our associates’ contributions, but also encourage them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as it becomes available to them to optimize their well-being as well as the community’s.”
Kroger and its pharmacies are playing a separate role as a vaccine administrator, having administered more than 200,000 COVID-19 vaccines to essential healthcare workers, skilled-nursing facility employees and residents and some elderly populations through Feb. 5.
Its Kroger Health division is seeking to hire some 1,000 new personnel, including pharmacy technicians, to support vaccine operations and administration.