Workers at one of the city’s landmark local grocery chains are pushing back against their employer’s decision to cut the bonus pay they received during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 7,000 people, including staff and customers, have signed an online petition started by Tekiah Elzey, who worked in the produce section at New Seasons Market’s Concordia location, one of 18 around the metro area. The chain, which was purchased by a South Korean company late last year, also operates a store in Northern California.
Among the demands:
- Restoration of the “thank you pay” that workers received between mid-March and late June, which was $150 per paycheck for full-time workers and $100 per paycheck for part-timers. (Starting salaries at the chain are $15 an hour, according to management.)
- A clampdown on shopper occupancy limits, which Elzey says have been gradually increasing over the summer, from a low of 35 to now about 50 in some locations.
- A more efficient notification system for when a coworker tests positive for the virus.
“I feel like we are expected to work and be thankful to have jobs, but we are almost trapped in our jobs,” Elzey says. “If you quit, you can’t get unemployment, and there are not many jobs right now, a lot of things have closed down. So we are being told to be thankful for having the bare minimum.”
Some of the problems come from customers and aren’t New Seasons-specific, she says, including shoppers who don’t observe social distancing or who pull down their masks while they shop. And she credits her employers with offering two weeks of paid leave for any employee that does test positive or are caring for a sick family member. The company’s thank you pay program extended longer than other area grocery stores; Fred Meyer stopped $2 per hour hazard pay boost programs in mid-May, while Safeway and Albertson’s stopped their pay boost in mid-June, despite protests from workers.
There have been sporadic cases of Oregon grocery store employees contracting COVID-19 since March, including 11 New Seasons employees—one each at the Evergreen, Orenco Station, Mountain Park, Raleigh Hills and Williams locations, and three from the Seven Corners location in Southeast Portland.
An employee at Whole Foods in the Pearl District died from COVID-19 in April; there have also been reported cases at Fred Meyer and WinCo. Grocery outbreaks have been relatively rare in the metro area since the start of the pandemic, though El Torito Grocery Store in Lane County did close briefly in July after seven employees there tested positive for the virus and a Safeway in La Grande reported an outbreak of five cases in July.
Against this backdrop, grocery workers at many stores have been pushing for better treatment for months; at New Seasons, there’s renewed talk of unionization among employees, Elzey says.
Julie Teune, a spokeswoman for New Seasons, says that the store has extended its 30 percent employee discount through the end of the year, at the request of its workers, but that it’s not financially sustainable to continue the thank you pay program. (Generally, grocery stores have remained profitable during the pandemic, both big-box chains and smaller regional operations.)
“Store leaders continue to transparently communicate updates and work with staff directly to find the best schedule to support and balance each staff member’s self-care with that of the rest of the department, as well as monitor store capacity limits, pinch points and administer staff symptom checks, among other safety precautions,” she wrote in an email to Portland Monthly.