At Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia, workers are regularly reminded of the risk they take while working during a pandemic.
Employees at the Fairmount store get their temperature checked before each shift and must wear face masks at work. They receive text alerts when colleagues get sick with the coronavirus. The grocery chain recently gave them T-shirts that say “Hero” on the front and call them “Hard Core” on the back.
But the extra money they had been receiving during the pandemic went away this week. Whole Foods had temporarily paid workers an additional $2 an hour, but that expired June 1, according to company emails sent to all employees in the United States and Canada. The decision to end so-called hazard pay has upset workers, who believe that they are still at risk of contracting the coronavirus, which has infected at least 1.8 million Americans and killed at least 107,000.
“The hazard — the thing we’re getting paid extra for — is still around. Coronavirus has no cure,” said an employee, one of three who spoke to The Inquirer on the condition of anonymity because they feared losing their jobs. “If we need to wear a mask, it’s because there’s a hazard. That’s not part of our standard job operation.”
A Whole Foods spokesperson said the temporary pay increase was a way to “acknowledge and appreciate the extraordinary circumstances” workers managed in “the early days of COVID-19.”
“As business and workloads stabilize, we are planning for the long-term, with a maintained focus on the safety measures we’ve implemented, while continuing to explore new ways to support our team members during this time,” the spokesperson said.
Whole Foods — owned by retail giant Amazon — is not the only major grocer or retailer to end hazard pay for essential workers as confirmed coronavirus cases decline in much of the country and governments lift restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus. Giant supermarkets and Rite Aid pharmacies have stopped additional pay, too. Grocery chain Kroger was reportedly set to end its “hero bonus” in mid-May. The company did not return a request for comment.
The Fair Labor Standards Act — the federal law that governs minimum wage, overtime pay, and record keeping — does not address hazard pay, except that it must be taken into account when calculating a federal employee’s overtime pay. Hazard pay could be included in a company’s collective bargaining agreement with unionized workers.
“There is no right to hazard pay,” said Janice Bellace, a legal studies and business ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
She said hazard pay is typically provided in industries where jobs are in dangerous or physically extreme conditions, such as frigid temperatures. If those jobs are unionized, collective bargaining agreements often include a formula to calculate hazard pay.
Although the extra pay given to grocery workers was called hazard pay by many, Bellace said it was more like a bonus for employees willing to work during the worst days of the pandemic. Stores have branded the pay omcreases as “appreciation pay” or “thank you pay.”
Workers at Acme and ShopRite continue to receive hazard pay, said the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents roughly 35,000 workers throughout Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia and Ohio.
Grocery chain Trader Joe’s, whose workers are not part of Local 1776, will receive an extra $2 an hour until at least Dec. 31, spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel said.
But like Whole Foods, other chains have stopped the extra pay. Giant groceries ended its $2-an-hour pay increase on May 30, spokesperson Ashley Flower said. Rite Aid has also discontinued hazard pay, said Wendell Young, Local 1776′s president.
“We argued with them about it,” Young said Wednesday. “We urged them not to do it. And it had a serious effect on morale.”
Rite Aid, which branded the extra money as “hero pay,” paid hourly workers at its retail stores and distribution warehouses an additional $2 an hour when the pandemic first struck the U.S. The program ran from March 15 to May 16, spokesperson Christopher Savarese said.
“As our journey through this unprecedented situation continues to evolve, we remain committed to supporting our associates and keeping them safe and healthy," Savarese said, adding that the company offered more than $60 million in additional pay, leave, and safety procedures.
Rite Aid workers represented by UFCW 1776 continue to work there, Young said, but he stressed the severity of taking away hazard pay that would have supported employees if they were infected. He said 757 union members have contracted the coronavirus, with a large number of cases concentrated in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Seven — five of whom worked in food processing — have died.
Young and Whole Foods workers said customers have become less vigilant about safety as states relax restrictions. Some customers take off masks once inside stores.
"We take this very seriously and I'm concerned that we're going have a spike [in cases] because of this, not just now, but again in the fall,” Young said.
At Whole Foods, workers can still take unpaid time off without penalty through June 21, according to an email sent to workers.
The Fairmount store recently put up boards over doors and windows to prevent property damage and looting when it’s closed. As thousands protest police brutality against black Americans, the store has closed early to ensure that workers get home safely and has paid them for shifts that are affected by store closures, a spokesperson said.
All of that has given some workers something else to worry about during the pandemic.