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By: Landan Kuhlmann

Source: The Fort Bend Star

When Joseph Garland heads to work each day at the Kroger in Sugar Land, he knows he is on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, he was among the employees demanding they continue to be better compensated for the risks they’re taking to come to work.

Dozens of Kroger employees and labor union representatives gathered outside two west Houston stores on Sept. 10 to protest the company’s May decision to remove employees’ hazard pay that had been in effect since March, when the pandemic reached the Houston region. The hazard pay provided employees an extra $2 per hour.

About a dozen or so workers were at the Kroger at 1801 S. Voss Rd., while about 15 others joined Garland at the grocery chain’s location at 9919 Westheimer Rd.

“We want to see about getting it back. All of the other stores are getting it,” said Garland, referring to other grocery retailers such as H-E-B and Walmart. “So why are we not getting it?”

Clara Campbell, a spokesperson for Kroger’s Houston division, said in an email the company has invested more than $830 million across the company to keep its employees safe since the start of the pandemic. That includes several rounds of bonuses and premium pay, according to Campbell, along with implementing emergency paid leave in March for workers most directly affected by COVID-19.

Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, ecommerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain,” she said.

Employees like Garland, however, say taking away hazard pay flies in contrast to that philosophy. After receiving notice of the hazard pay severance in May, workers subsequently reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 455.

The labor union represents grocery, retail and other workers in Texas and Louisiana.

“Apparently (this virus) is not going away. The employees are working hard; they’re risking their lives and their families’ lives to come in and make sure the community is getting the products that they need,” UFCW Local 455 Treasurer Shirley Rome said. “They’ve been here for the community, and we feel like the company should support them in that.”

Additionally, Garland said the company is attempting to force employees over to a company-wide health plan – which Rome claims would cost more out-of-pocket annually than employees make in a year. A report from Eater Houston said Kroger also is reducing full-time positions at stores and capping vacation time for part-time employees.

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