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Spokane grocery workers get boosted pay, benefits during pandemic

Rosauers customer Gary Petrovich buys donuts during senior and at-risk shopping at the grocery store on 29th Avenue, Thursday, March 19, 2020. Grocery workers at Rosauers, Albertsons, Safeway and now Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer, are now getting a temporary boost in pay and other benefits after recent agreements with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The union that represents grocery workers in Spokane and North Idaho announced a deal Wednesday with Fred Meyer parent Kroger Co. to increase worker pay by $2 an hour for those employees who continue to work at grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The deal with Kroger comes after similar deals were negotiated to boost the pay for employees at Safeway, Albertsons and Rosauers stores. Yoke’s Fresh Market employees are not members of United Food and Commercial Workers and are not part of the deal, said Eric Renner, president of Local 1439.

“We look at our members as the unsung heroes everyday,” said Renner, who started in the grocery business as a bagger. “They are not afraid of going to work. They look at themselves as being on the front line, because this food supply has to continue.”

The deal announced Wednesday covers about 13,000 employees throughout Washington who work for Kroger-owned store chains, which also include QFC. It also benefits some 460,000 grocery workers nationwide who work for Kroger.

“Working together, UFCW and Kroger have listened to workers and customers across the country to identify the most urgent needs and determine the best way to support these hardworking men and women on the front lines who are serving our communities every day throughout this national crisis,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said.

Rocky Dailey, 57, a meat manager at a Spokane Rosauers store, said the temporary pay increase is appreciated. He’s worked for the company for 33 years.

“I feel like we needed something, anything,” said Dailey, who had just finished a 12-hour shift. “We have to come to work. We don’t really have an option. It’s kind of scary.”

Renner said Kroger initially offered a bonus to its employees, but the union kept negotiating for the same $2 boost to hourly wages that were previously provided by Albertsons, Safeway and Rosauers. The deals also provide paid emergency leave for those members who either have coronavirus symptoms or are forced to isolate themselves.

It also provided for shortened store hours, plexiglass barriers, additional cleaning and sanitizing protocols so that employees can wash their hands and clean their registers every 30 minutes.

“Our associates have displayed the true actions of a hero, working tirelessly on the front lines to ensure everyone has access to affordable, fresh food and essentials during this national emergency,” Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen said in a news release.

The union and Kroger worked together to protect grocery workers as they stock the shelves at local stores that keep people fed during the coronavirus pandemic, McMullen said.

“The Hero Bonus is just one more way we continue to convey our thanks and gratitude not only to our existing associates but also to the more than 30,000 new hires who have joined in the past two weeks and those who will soon join the Kroger Family of Companies,” McMullen said in the release.

Renner, who has been president of Local 1439 since 2018, said the union represents about 2,500 members in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene region. It has about 7,000 members in North Idaho, Central Washington and northeast Oregon.

He said negotiations to increase grocery worker pay started just after Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was going to close schools to help prevent the spread of the virus. The first deal was struck with Albertsons, which owns Safeway, and Rosauers followed suit.

Efforts to reach Rosauers President and CEO Jeff Philipps were unsuccessful Wednesday.

“The human element of this (pandemic) is drawing attention to our people,” Renner said. “The public will now realize how important this work is.”

The grocery employees, who traditionally have worked for low pay, continue to work six or seven days a week as most of the rest of the population shelters in their homes.

“We have single mothers working in deli departments who are supporting their kids,” he continued. “They are doing what they need to do to ensure the food supply continues for the public.”

Dailey, the meat manager, said he appreciated his union stepping up to help.

“I look at it more as hazard pay,” he said. “I feel like I should get that hazard pay as long as I’m still at risk.”