Kroger eliminates paid COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated

Discussion
Source: Kroger
Dec 20, 2021

The largest grocery chain in the U.S. recently pulled its paid COVID-19 leave for employees not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus in a move designed to encourage inoculations.

As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, Kroger will no longer provide two weeks of paid emergency leave for unvaccinated employees who contract COVID-19 or those placed under mandatory quarantine, unless local jurisdictions require otherwise. Employees under Kroger’s health insurance will also be charged a $50 per month surcharge for remaining unvaccinated. Both policies are effective Jan. 1.

While Kroger may have public health in mind, it is making this move on precarious footing with some employees over, among other things, pandemic-related pay. Workers at Kroger subsidiaries Fred Meyer and QFC went on strike last week, arguing that the chain has disregarded workers’ rights, denied them respect and failed to negotiate a fair contract. Workers ended the walkout after one day and are set to vote on a settlement worked out between their union and management that calls for $36 million in additional funding to go towards worker pay.

On Friday, a federal appeals court panel allowed President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision. The order mandates that all companies with more than 100 employees have every worker either vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19 by Jan. 4.

“OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has demonstrated the pervasive danger that COVID-19 poses to workers — unvaccinated workers in particular — in their workplaces,” the ruling said.

The states of Louisiana, Texas, Utah, South Carolina and Mississippi have joined with businesses as well as religious and advocacy organizations to file for a permanent injunction against the mandate.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) in early November joined a handful of industry groups in a lawsuit seeking to postpone the government’s mandate on vaccination and testing requirements. NRF officials argued the mandate was too burdensome during peak selling season amid the tight labor market.

NRF’s SVP of government relations David French on Friday said the organization is considering other legal options while calling the rule “infeasible for employers to implement during the critical holiday season.”

The ruling comes as the highly-contagious Omicron variant gains steam in the U.S.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is Kroger’s approach the right one for incentivizing vaccination at this point? Do you see potential blowback from labor for the revocation of COVID-19 sick pay and vaccination-related insurance surcharge and, if so, how should Kroger deal with it?

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32 Comments on "Kroger eliminates paid COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

This is a difficult situation – for Kroger and their employees. Kroger has the right to set policy, particularly as it relates to worker and shopper safety, and their move to encourage vaccinations is part of it. I think it would have been better to implement the vaccination incentive but also continue to offer front-line workers additional pay and benefits. The revocation of COVID-19 sick pay in the face of the more contagious Omicron variant sends the wrong message — especially given the power that workers can exercise and are exercising on employers.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Wrong message, Mark? What is the right message?

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Gene, like I said, it’s a difficult situation. I strongly align with and applaud Kroger’s strong stance on encouraging vaccinations, however given the murky legal situation regarding mandates and the apparent labor strife in their other subsidiaries, I think Kroger’s could have positioned the policy change differently. Applying a health insurance surcharge to unvaccinated employees is reasonable and defensible — eliminating paid “emergency leave” seems harsh.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

That is fair. But — I am in the “harsh” camp.

Brent Biddulph
BrainTrust

Disagree. This is the RIGHT message, especially considering front-line grocery employees are interacting with citizens every minute of every day at an exponentially higher rate than any other “first responders.” Consider this a customer first initiative — perhaps that would change perspectives here, as am sure this was considered by Kroger.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

You won’t hear any arguments from me. I am actually really frustrated and angry over the “next wave” that puts me at risk because of irrational people who really believe they’re rational.

One of these days, I would like to get back to my life.

Joel Rubinson
BrainTrust

I think this is an appropriate decision. It is not as strong as saying you can’t work if not vaccinated but it reinforces that personal actions and decisions have consequences.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Individual decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. They have repercussions and consequences. Kroger is absolutely right in implementing this new policy. People have the right to make personal choices, but those choices can quickly ripple out into a larger community and then things get complicated. Or maybe it’s not complicated at all. The data and the science is abundantly clear. So sure, people have a right to make their own choices. And then there are repercussions.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Right! It isn’t complicated at all.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Actions have consequences. Exactly right.

Scott Norris
Guest

Delta Air Lines basically did the same “soft” thing with insurance, and United made it a straight-up “hard” requirement – the handful of staff who left were more than replaced with new applicants. Mayo Clinic’s mandate saw quick 97 percent compliance – those who left were much less than the usual turnover.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

I support Kroger’s decision, and I also support companies who provide different levels of health insurance coverage (or higher premiums) for the non-vaccinated. Just as smokers make a decision affecting their health as well as health-care costs for the rest of us, the non-vaccinated are doing the same thing (and filling up ICUs in the process). If the Federal mandate doesn’t stick in the court system, private employers who support the premise need to search in their own benefits toolbox.

Kevin Graff
BrainTrust

I’m a retail guy, not a health or policy expert. However this is a very slippery slope. I guess cutting off those who choose not get vaccinated is ok, so long as you also cut off health benefits for those who choose to smoke, drink alcohol, do extreme sports or fail to take realistic steps to control type-2 diabetes where possible.
Here in Canada, where nearly 80 percent of the population is fully vaxxed (including me, by the way), the majority of Omicron cases have infected those same fully vaxxed people.

It seems to me that Kroger, while likely well-intended, is completely off the tracks.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Points noted, although diabetes and “extreme sports” don’t usually involve public health risks … unless maybe you fall on somebody.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I’m all in favor of this – they’ve had a year and a half to figure out vaccinations are a good thing, public health-wise, and that the vaccines are safe. As a regular Kroger shopper, I’m appreciative.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Unfortunately, this is the right decision. I think Kroger is trying to do the right thing but I believe there will be some backlash from it and I think Kroger will stand by their decision.

Perry Kramer
BrainTrust

Right or wrong, this is a thoroughly discussed business/financial decision. The key factors at Kroger I’m confident included: how do we control rising healthcare costs? How many team members are we going to lose and have to spend time/money rehiring and training in a very competitive market? How do we best protect our team members and minimize the number of employees exposed to COVID-19 positive people?

We need to allow retailers to make these financial decisions and let them face the results in the court of public opinion.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

My position is even harsher than Kroger’s. I believe that if someone is not vaccinated and there is a shortage of hospital beds, the unvaccinated don’t get one.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

This is tough love for sure. But, like many friends I’ve talked to, with all the information available about the vaccine and it’s effectiveness at preventing severe disease, even with Omicron, if you choose not to get vaccinated, you have made a choice about your job and the health of your coworkers. Enough coddling, incenting, even begging. Last weekend the CEOs from most of the health systems in Minnesota took a full page ad in the state’s papers begging people to get shots. There is nowhere to put patients anymore, regardless of reason. And all of it is preventable. There should be consequences for behaviors.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

This is a strong message that Kroger is sending to their employees and the public. Kroger is essentially doing what insurance companies do for smokers. There is a difference in the benefits – or the cost of benefits. Kroger is interpreting data and making decisions about how to manage insurance, sick pay, etc. It is within their rights to do so.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

The sound of lawyers rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation is deafening.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

There are many questions and opinions here, and they must be worked out, which will be like a wrestling match. Considering the explosion of a new variant again, new actions must be taken which will result in both happy and agitated responses. With this new virus explosion, public opinion would lean toward being thankful to patronize businesses which try to keep all staff and customers safe.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

At some point we’ll have to stop dithering and start taking real action to stop COVID-19 and its variants. The “over my dead body” anti-vac crowd must face consequences — otherwise we’ll face a lifetime of mask wearing and restrictions.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
I have absolutely no problems with this policy whether you are viewing it as an “incentive” to get vaccinated or a “punishment” for not getting the vaccine. At this point we need to remember that “public” is the first word in public health for a reason. I have the right to stand in the middle of the Grand Canyon and scream “fire!” all I want, I just can’t do it in a crowded theater. What’s the difference? My “personal” rights stop as soon as they impinge on public safety. I don’t have the right to chug a quart of vodka in 10 minutes and then drive my car at 120 MPH down the street. If i want to chug that same amount of alcohol in my living room, I guess I have that right. If children want to go to public schools their parents have to see to it (with the exception of religious objections) that they have a battery of vaccines. My oldest cousin was paralyzed from the neck down. He contracted polio the… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I am astounded by the reaction of the public to the COVID-19 vaccines. In the early 1950s there were about 20,000 cases of polio per year and about 2,000 deaths. Yet, when the Salk vaccine was approved, about everyone wanted it. I was in elementary school when it was first available. I did not have to go to a special place to get it. I remember the class lining up in school to get the first two shots and when the Sabin vaccine (on a sugar cube) came out, it too was administered in the classroom.

How many mortal diseases have been eradicated with vaccines? In terms of deaths, COVID-19 in the U.S. far surpassed that of any war. Can we say this is the biggest enemy this country has encountered? Where is the same patriotic response?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

COVID isn’t the biggest enemy America has ever faced. It’s a disease and we haven’t used what we know to control it. If we had several hundred thousands of our fellow citizens would still be on this side of the grave.

So, in my book the greater enemy is the growing resistance among a significant percentage of the nation to acknowledge the existence of a shared, objective, common reality, you know, that stuff every sane person can recognize.

In the end, over time, ignorance always kills more than any virus could hope to. Viruses generally evolve to not kill their hosts. Ignorance isn’t that sensible.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

You are absolutely right!!!!!!!

Ah, “the existence of a shared, objective, common reality, you know, that stuff every sane person can recognize.” You mean like a war?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Kroger operates in a public space with many people coming into the stores. Kroger has an obligation to protect its employees and shoppers. Unvaccinated employees does not protect either other employees or shoppers. Kroger’s mandates to not fund two weeks of sick for those unvaccinated or to increase the cost of health care for unvaccinated will hopefully increase the number of vaccinated without firing them, should be favored by vaccinated employees since it protects them, and should be welcomed by shoppers who will be more protected. Companies are beginning to take stands on the importance of vaccination and I applaud them.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

It’s easy to answer the second question — of course labor will object, since they’re giving up potential money (even if they’re gaining a small amount of protection) – and almost as easy to recommend how to deal with it (“We’re responsible for everyone’s safety, not you.”). But is it the right move? There’s really no “right” move here: there’s a strong motivation for this action, but it’s unusual if not in fact unprecedented, and it could open the door to further activism (what if you don’t wear your seatbelt and are hurt in an auto accident? … Hmmm.)

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Kroger is an excellent operator and I’m sure they gave this situation and decision a great deal of consideration, as it deserves. Truth is each individual is free to make decisions, and they have consequences.

Insurers have been charging higher premiums for individuals who engage in smoking, etc.; in this case it is an employer who is setting policy.

I’m a Ralph’s shopper and fully support this decision.

Anil Patel
BrainTrust

When enacting such policies, management should ensure that all employees understand the purpose of the reforms. Employees must be fully informed about the policy changes, including what they are and why they are being implemented. Finally, both the corporation and the union are striving toward the same goal: the well-being of its employees. Building consensus will yield far superior results than just penalizing employees.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
4 months 25 days ago

A fascinating one and getting into a potentially major political arena of discussion. Anyone with an opinion on this should consider some of the regulations appearing in Europe. In Austria, a country usually seen as liberal in outlook, the government have chosen to mandate vaccines in such a way as to restrict overall freedoms of the unvaccinated. In other countries weekly fines are being imposed unless you are vaccinated. One might argue there should be a ‘carrot & stick’ approach to this — which is why I have thought very highly of some of the lottery schemes run in some US states.

As for Kroger, their shareholders expect the management to do everything they can to mitigate risk and loss. Paid sick leave is a benefit for employees, but a cost to the business. Some might feel that promoting vaccination in this way is a good thing for the business as well as for society as a whole.

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Braintrust
"This is a difficult situation – for Kroger and their employees. "
"The sound of lawyers rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation is deafening."
"In the end, over time, ignorance always kills more than any virus could hope to. Viruses generally evolve to not kill their hosts. Ignorance isn’t that sensible."

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