A survey of more than ten thousand workers at Kroger, the fourth-largest private employer in the United States, finds that homelessness and food insecurity are rampant among union grocery store employees lauded as essential throughout the pandemic. Among the respondents, who work at Kroger-owned stores in Southern California, Colorado, and Washington State, 14 percent have been homeless in the past year, 36 percent worry about eviction, and more than three-quarters meet the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of “food insecure,” with 34 percent of the respondents skipping or reducing meal size to stay afloat.
The survey was conducted in the summer of 2021 by the Economic Roundtable and funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the union which represents these workers. Kroger is the largest supermarket chain in the United States, and the second-largest retailer, behind Walmart. The company operates some twenty-eight hundred stores under a variety of names: 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, and Fred Meyer are all Kroger entities. As of 2020, the company has 465,000 employees.
The pandemic has been a boon for Kroger, with dollars that would normally have been spent at restaurants instead going to grocery purchases, resulting in historic profits and skyrocketing cash on hand. The company earned $4.05 billion in operating profits in 2020, and by the end of the third quarter of 2021, Kroger had $2.28 billion in cash on hand, up from $399 million in early 2020.
Company executives have been generously rewarded: in 2021, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen made $22.2 million, far higher than the $12 million he made in 2018. Median worker pay at Kroger was $24,617 in 2021, meaning the CEO made 909 times the pay of a typical worker. The company has rewarded stockholders with stock buyback programs. Workers, however, have seen nothing: even though the company followed its peers by granting hazard pay in March of 2020, it stopped doing so by May.
Such inequality is not going unnoticed by the company’s workers.
“Rodney McMullen can afford helicopters and yachts, and I will be homeless when my parents die,” writes one clerk at King Soopers in Colorado in filling out the survey. More than eight thousand of Colorado’s King Soopers workers have begun a strike today, in response to what workers say is company intransigence and bad faith at the bargaining table.
Homelessness is endemic among the workers whose real pay has declined in recent decades as the company switched to increasingly volatile, part-time schedules and lower real wages. “Since 1990, wages for the most experienced Kroger food clerks have declined from 11 to 22 percent (adjusted for inflation) across the three regions surveyed,” the report notes.
“There be days where I would starve myself so that my kids can eat but even that’s not enough,” writes a cheese shop clerk at King Soopers in Colorado. “There’s been times where I couldn’t pay my rent and ended up on the street.”
In addition to homelessness, 36 percent of respondents say they worry about eviction, and 18 percent had not paid the prior month’s rent or mortgage on time. Were these numbers to hold across stores nationwide, that would mean some sixty-five thousand employees experienced homelessness in the past year, all while performing essential work and risking contracting COVID. That such housing insecurity is endemic among the workers surveyed, all of whom work in union stores, suggests that a survey of other, nonunion shops would paint an even grimmer picture.
As the report’s authors note, Kroger workers’ rate of food insecurity is seven times greater than the US average. Surrounded by food on the job, these workers and their children go hungry, with the company offering a measly 10 percent employee discount on its own goods, one which notably does not apply to fresh produce. To make ends meet, many Kroger workers rely on SNAP benefits, or family and friends: more than two-fifths of respondents say they had to borrow money from their family or friends to pay for basic expenses.
The company has high turnover, which workers say is a result of low pay, understaffing, and unpredictable scheduling — a quarter of respondents are told about schedule changes the same day or only one day in advance — but criticism of the company only gets stronger the longer a worker has been at Kroger, with those with five or more years of tenure most likely to say the company is going in the wrong direction. The number of workers leaving Kroger has increased fourfold since the start of the pandemic.
“Once upon a time I enjoyed my job,” writes a wine steward at Ralphs in southern California. “Now it is a constant struggle to even get out of bed to go to work. I am on antidepressants because of my job. I have eaten unhealthy food and gained weight from the stress of my job. I am constantly worried about retaliation if I ask for time off. I have not taken a real vacation in years because no one at work can do what I can.”
A living wage for Kroger workers would amount to around $22 an hour, well above their current average pay of $17.89 an hour. The company must raise wages to this minimum. A majority of the survey’s respondents say the company should also help workers pay for childcare.
The report’s additional recommendations include that Kroger provide immediate housing assistance for Kroger employees who are experiencing homelessness or face the threat of eviction, double the share of Kroger workers who have full-time jobs from 30 percent to 60 percent, provide a 50 percent discount on all groceries for Kroger workers to end their food insecurity, and provide at least one week’s notice of schedule changes for part-time Kroger workers. Without those changes, workers will carry on in a state of emergency, ably captured by how a home clerk at Fred Meyer concluded their response to the survey: “Haven’t eaten in 3 days actually cuz I’m so broke.”
Kroger will never adopt these changes without being forced to do so. The company has ground down its hundreds of thousands of workers and dug in its heels in the face of attempts to improve their working conditions. Their recalcitrance at the bargaining table in Colorado is but one example. Perhaps a more telling one is Kroger’s response to the small number of local ordinances passed during the pandemic mandating hazard pay for grocery store workers.
Having swiftly terminated their hazard pay program, the company refused to countenance any efforts to boost worker pay on the part of elected officials. In some cities, the company and its counterparts in the industry succeeded in defeating hazard pay ordinances through lobbying. However, a few locales, including Long Beach and Los Angeles, did pass such ordinances. Kroger responded by shuttering multiple stores in those areas, preferring to close down business entirely rather than pay workers a fair wage.