Kroger, the biggest traditional grocery chain in the U.S., is ending some benefits for unvaccinated workers as large employers attempt to compel more of their workforce to become vaccinated with cases of the coronavirus rising once again.
Workers who haven’t received coronavirus vaccines will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected, a company spokesperson confirmed earlier this month. The paid emergency leave policy was put into place last year before vaccines were available. The change is effective Jan. 1, 2022.
The company said it will also begin charging a US$50 monthly fee to unvaccinated salaried workers and managers who are enrolled in the company health-care plan. Unionized workers and non-union hourly workers won’t be charged that fee.
Kroger has nearly 500,000 employees in the U.S. and 66 per cent belong to a union. The company won’t say what percentage of its workers are vaccinated.
The White House made it clear that Kroger’s policy — including the $50 monthly charge — isn’t one the federal government is promoting. U.S. President Joe Biden backs a vaccine mandate at large companies, but that plan is facing legal opposition. In the meantime, many companies are still trying to get as many of their employees vaccinated as possible.
“We know different private sector companies and entities are going to take different steps to incentivize people to get vaccinated, to keep their employees safe and their work force safe,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki at a recent briefing. “It’s not a policy we’re putting out there from the federal government.”
Kroger said it will still offer various leave options for employees who contract the coronavirus, including earned paid time off and the ability to apply for unpaid leave. What the company calls a “special” leave will only remain available to fully vaccinated employees
Early last year, Kroger implemented emergency leave that allowed paid time off for any worker diagnosed with the coronavirus. All employees were eligible to receive their standard pay for up to 14 days.
As the organization modifies some of its policies, it said it will continue to encourage workers to get vaccinated with $100 payments given to all fully vaccinated employees. Asked whether the new policy might encourage some employees to come to work even if they’re sick, a Kroger spokesperson said the company continues to implement enhanced cleaning and physical distancing and requires employees to wear masks in all of its stores and offices, regardless of vaccination status.
Kroger isn’t the first company to steer clear of an outright mandate and instead try to coerce employees through company-sponsored health plans. In August, Delta Airlines announced it would charge employees on the company health plan $200 a month if they fail to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. At the time, the airline also said it would stop extending pay protection on Sept. 30 to unvaccinated workers who contract the coronavirus and would require unvaccinated workers to be tested weekly beginning Sept. 12, although Delta would cover the cost.