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Disturbing New Report Shows Dire Conditions For Grocery Workers

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A huge new survey of Kroger employees finds homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity are widespread.

An alarming new survey of thousands of grocery workers across three western U.S. states reveals that they suffer from shockingly high rates of poverty. More than three-quarters of the workers meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of ?“food insecure,” and 14% say they have been homeless within the past year. 

The survey, which was funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and performed by the nonprofit research group the Economic Roundtable, drew responses from more than 10,000 workers at Kroger, the largest all-grocery chain in the United States. (Kroger also owns other grocery brands including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, and City Market.) The workers surveyed live in Southern California, Washington state, and Colorado, and all of them are UFCW members?–?indicating that the abysmal conditions reported may in fact be better than the conditions of the average U.S.grocery worker, given the fact that all of those surveyed have at least the minimal protections that union contracts provide. 

Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College who co-authored the new report, believes that it is one of the largest independent surveys of retail workers ever performed in the United States. ?“We scoured pretty carefully the terrain of polling and surveys that have been done, and didn’t see anything remotely close,” he says. 

Among the survey’s findings: 

– Fourteen percent of Kroger workers are now homeless, or have been within the past year. More than one-third say they fear being evicted. Even among full time employees, 15% say that they cannot pay their next rent or mortgage bill.

– The study’s authors calculated that a living wage for Kroger workers would be $22 an hour, working full time?–?about $46,000 per year. But only 35% of the workers surveyed work full time, and the average wage for a Kroger worker is less than $18 per hour, which amounts to less than $30,000 per year. Even workers who have been at Kroger more than 14 years do not make a living wage, averaging under $21 per hour.

– Contrary to public perception, the majority of Kroger workers have some college or post-graduate education. Eighty five percent are high school graduates. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed say they are not fairly compensated for their experience and work, and more than 90% say they will not have enough money for retirement.

– Despite working around food all day, one-quarter of Kroger workers say that they went hungry in the past year because they could not afford food. Fourteen percent say they receive food stamps. Kroger offers employees only a 10% discount on food at the store.

– A quarter of workers say that their work schedule is so unstable that they do not know it more than one day in advance. Unstable work schedules are correlated with other other problems, like food and housing insecurity.

– A majority of Kroger workers say they were faced with customers who refused to wear masks during the pandemic. Only 43% of those who faced ?“disrespectful or threatening” customers say that management intervened to help them in those situations.

Though the survey only covers Kroger employees, it is fair to assume that the problems it describes apply to grocery workers across the U.S. Indeed, the descriptions of poverty and lack of workplace safety and support match what workers at other grocery stores have told In These Times repeatedly since the pandemic began. 

The attitudes of the Kroger workers surveyed reflect a broad and ongoing decline in the working standards of their entire industry. The percentage of workers who say that the company is heading in the wrong direction is highest among those who have been employed at the company the longest. They are the ones who have been there long enough to live through the erosion of the industry?–?the decline of grocery store jobs from something that could provide entree into the middle class, to a low-level retail job in which workers are treated as disposable. 

That decline in working standards is not driven by the inability of grocery companies to provide for employees. Kroger, which employs close to a half million people, sold more than $132 billion in groceries in 2020, with profits of $4 billion. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kroger’s stock has risen more than 40%. The desperate situation reported by its work force illustrates the extent to which?–?even in unionized stores?–?grocery industry profits flow to investors and management, rather than to workers. 

In response to the report’s findings, a Kroger spokesperson sent a statement saying ?“Since 2017, we’ve invested significantly to increase our national average hourly rate of pay from $13.66 to $16.68, reflecting an increase of $3 per hour or simply stated as a 22% increase… As America’s grocer, we have balanced significant wage investments for our associates while keeping food affordable for the communities we serve.”

The report includes a list of recommendations to remedy the situation, the most important of which is raising Kroger workers up to a living wage. The authors calculate that such a raise would create nearly 8,000 new jobs in the Seattle, Denver, and Southern California regions covered in the report, due primarily to increased spending from grocery workers. Other recommendations include sharply increasing the percentage of Kroger employees who work full time, and raising the company’s food discount for employees to 50%. With the results of the survey in hand, the UFCW now has tangible evidence of the shortcomings in its own contracts to provide for the basic needs of Kroger workers. 

“Unionized grocery store workers have already been pushing for many of these improvements during the pandemic. The big difference now is that all of our contracts are soon to be expiring by this summer or before,” says Tom Geiger, special projects director for UFCW Local 21, whose members were included in the survey. ?“And there is a lot of growing solidarity for addressing grocery store workers’ struggle for higher wages, more secure scheduling, improved safety and more. We will all be pushing hard for those improvements in 2022.”

According to Dreier, the downward trend in economic conditions in the grocery industry has been driven largely by the need to compete with Walmart, which sells more groceries than anyone else in the U.S. He argues that raising wages ?“would be good for Kroger, because they have enormous turnover. They’re basically operating in a self-destructive way.” 

Dreier was not surprised at the suffering among grocery workers, but he was surprised by the sheer scale of the problem. ?“This is a phenomenon in America that’s almost invisible,” he says. ?“There are people working full time, living in their cars.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 11, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: “Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@?InTheseTimes.?com.”


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Australia Seeks to ‘Manage’ the Poor While Making Them Poorer

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When Mitt Romney derides the legions of Americans who are supposedly utterly dependent on government and are ruining the country’s entrepreneurial spirit, we should remember that while this disdain for the poor may have a uniquely American inflection, the greed-is-good ethos flourishes in other rich nations. In the land down under, we see a mirror image of the political establishment’s frontal assault on poor communities, with welfare policy acting as a cudgel for blaming the epidemic of poverty on the poor themselves.

The Australian government has been tightening its grip on welfare benefits through the Income Management program, which essentially dictates how the poor should spend their benefits. Participants may have about 50 to 70 percent of their money placed under state control, reserved for essential items like food.
Like welfare reform in the United States, this is retrofitted paternalism: participants must spend the “quarantined” money using a “Basics Card” at government-approved outlets. The rationale is that too many poor people would squander money on gambling, drinking, pornography and other unproductive things when given a chance.

The program was first piloted in destitute aboriginal communities that had become notorious for cases of family crisis and child abuse. Income Management is now spreading to several new areas, according to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), with enrollment based on “referral from child protection authorities” and referrals from social workers “on the grounds of ‘vulnerability.’ ” The targeting of these already stigmatized groups–indigenous people, parents in troubled homes, and others deemed financially incompetent–reflects the myth that poverty is cultural and not the result of oppressive structures.

A recent announcement on the introduction of Income Management in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in southern Australia suggests that some communities are eager to comply: “APY Lands residents told us income management would help them better manage their money and help stop humbugging, ensuring there is enough money for life essentials, such as food, housing and clothing.”

To opponents of the program, the main problem facing poor people isn’t their bad self-management, but the faillure of the social service system to provide adequate economic supports for “life essentials.” Adding to the attack on vulnerable families, Income Management has been rolled out with another strict “intervention”: the threat of suspending certain welfare benefits for parents “whose children are not enrolled or regularly attending school,” thus further punishing poor parents and their children.

A coalition of community-based service providers and advocacy organizations has dismissed Income Management as both discriminatory and needlessly punitive. To progressive anti-poverty advocates, Income Management threatens to infantilize people who want self-sufficiency but are hindered by structural economic hardships. Pam Batkin, head of Woodville Community Services, tells Working In These Times via email that the program:

is a simplistic response to very, very complex social problems. People may be unemployed due to lack of education and skills or they may have a disability. Quarantining their welfare payments if they are behind in their rent will not assist them to find a job. Indeed it may make life more difficult for people. Addictions to alcohol, illegal drugs or gambling are complex social issues which cannot be addressed by simply quarantining a person’s welfare payments.

In a statement of opposition issued last fall, Paddy Gibson of Sydney’s Stop the Intervention Collective said the program was “built on racist assumptions that Aboriginal people are incapable of managing their lives; it imposes harsh control measures rather than creating opportunities.”

A policy analysis by ACOSS points to “a lack of evidence that the groups targeted were unable to manage their financial affairs.” Even Parliament’s own assessment admits this in part.

Activists in indigenous communities have condemned recent welfare legislation as an affront to community sovereignty and economic rights. Following the passage of the so-called “Stronger Futures” bill in July, Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra, Yolngu Nations Assembly spokesperson, said in a statement, “By overruling the wishes of the people, the Government has declared a war on democracy.”

And now that the draconian model has been tested on indigenous people, the government is expanding it to new communities, though these “trials” will purportedly be made more palatable by encouraging voluntary, in addition to state-mandated, participation.

Randa Kattan of the Arab Council Australia, located in Bankstown, where the program has just been launched, likened Income Management to the harsh welfare reforms imposed in the United States during the 1990s, which were also designed to punitively push people off of benefits.

Australia, Kattan said, might “eventually… go down the road of the United States. The government wants to push people off the books, blame them for their situation, for things that are beyond their control.” For service providers, Income Management would damage community relations. “This is a system that will change our relationship and how we work with people. This system is about punishment and control. It’s very nasty.”

Another issue with the government’s scorched-earth welfare reform is the potential for waste. ACOSS argued that while “the program increases the cost to Government of social security payments for those assisted by one third to one half,” in the long-run, “the funds being invested in these programs could be more efficiently invested in initiatives to improve income support, employment assistance, housing, health, education and family services in poor communities.”

The neoliberal arithmetic of Income Management can only be understood in terms of a one-percent political calculus. In both the United States and Australia, privilege is faithfully served at the expense of the poor. Leaders of prosperous Western democracies might be expected to invest public resources more wisely, but then again, they refuse to take orders from anyone on how to spend their money.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.


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What is poverty?

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Mark E. AndersonWhat is poverty? According to the federal government poverty for a family of four is $23,050 a year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which, if you work a 40-hour week, 52 weeks a year, you would earn $15,080 a year. The average rent cost in the United States is $808 (PDF) a month or $9,696 a year. If you use the thriftiest numbers provided by the USDA (I am assuming this is not a healthy diet) groceries for a family of four averages between $507 and $582 (PDF) a month depending on the age of the children. That is $6,084 to $6,984 a year. Food and lodging for this family of four costs between $15,780 and $16,680 a year. I have not even gotten to childcare costs yet, which for a child who is around four years old ranges $3,900 to $15,540 a year (PDF) a year. There is help for this family of four though, the average amount of SNAP benefits available to a family of four? $496 a month, not enough to pay for all of their groceries, however, it is enough to prevent starvation. Even with SNAP benefits it is obvious that in the family of four only one of the adults can work, as the other has to stay home with the children. I cannot imagine how a single parent at this level of income could keep it together let alone get out of poverty.

Federal Poverty Levels 2012

Those are the numbers that define poverty in America; however, the definition of poverty goes much further than those numbers. The American Heritage dictionary defines poverty as, “the state of being poor; lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts.”

Let that soak in for a minute, “lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts.” Things like food, shelter, and stability. You cannot get sick, you cannot take a day off to go to the doctor, you cannot afford to go to the doctor at all. If the price of food goes up you have to take away from some other part of your budget. But what takes the hit? Is your landlord going to allow you to pay less rent? How do you buy school supplies? How do you get to and from work? None of the figures above include transportation.

Imagine living in a world where you don’t know if you have enough money for your next meal, going without food so that your children may eat. Worrying about scraping together enough money to take your child to the doctor for things that most of us take for granted like immunizations. The feelings of inadequacy when your child wants nothing more than a candy bar and you cannot afford it. How grateful you feel when a stranger hands you a dollar bill to buy that candy bar and how miserable it makes you feel inside that you must depend on the kindness of strangers for such small pleasures in life. How hard birthdays and Christmases are when you cannot afford to purchase even the smallest of gifts (especially in our consumer-driven society).

According to conservative mouthpieces if you have a color TV and a refrigerator you are not poor, and several of the memes that exist today say that if you have a newer car and a cell phone you are not poor, discounting that you may have purchased that newer car or cell phone before you lost your job and lost your home. That you need to be drug tested before you can receive any kind of benefits. The poor are second-class citizens who cannot be trusted with the meager benefits that are provided to them. They should, “just get a job,” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Great advice; however, if you are making minimum wage, you don’t have bootstraps to pull up.

The same people who refuse to help the poor because they are, “lazy and shiftless,” have no problem giving a tax break, that is larger than what someone making minimum wage earns in a year, to someone who makes their money through investments, in other words, a tax break to someone who has never worked a day in their lives. Only because they have a higher social status they deserve what amounts to a government handout in the form of a tax break, while someone working for minimum wage every single day does not deserve a hand up.

While I am not a religious man I find it hypocritical that the people who claim to follow Christianity do not follow some of its core teachings. When my mom forced me to go to confirmation classes at Bashford United Methodist Church in my youth I primarily went through the motions just to make her happy; however, one quote that Rev. Rick Pearson taught me has stuck with me all these years, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth – 1 John 3:17-18.”

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”


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So Rich, So Poor: What to make of America’s poverty problem

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Eric MogelCurrent Georgetown University Law Center Professor Peter Edelman knows a thing or
two about poverty. While serving in the Health and Human Services Department under
the Clinton administration, Peter famously resigned in protest to Clinton’s signing of the
1996 Welfare Reform Act. He believed that the move from federal control of welfare
grants to a system in which individual states were able to control these funds themselves
would result in an increase in the poverty rate and the disappearance of a safety net for
America’s poorest citizens. Sixteen years later, Peter Edelman’s new book So Rich, So
Poor
paints a portrait of the effects of welfare reform on Americans in the lower and
middle classes and makes a compelling argument for an increase in government aid and
intervention.

So Rich, So Poor details some of the troubling facts about just how much income
disparity has affected the poorest and wealthiest citizens. In 1979 the top one percent of
America’s wealthiest citizens earned nine percent of all personal income. However, in
2007 the same top one percent pulled in over twenty three percent of all personal income.
On the other end of the spectrum, twenty million Americans are living in a state of deep
poverty. According to Peter Edelman, deep poverty is a state in which a family of three
is earning below nine thousand dollars per year. While the twenty million Americans in
deep poverty come from all backgrounds and states, some groups are disproportionately
overrepresented. Single mothers and minority groups make up a large percent of the
people living in deep poverty. As So Rich, So Poor notes however, it is not only single
mothers that suffer when they are living in deep poverty. The children being raised by
these single mothers are also living in a state of deep poverty, with untold consequences
on these children’s abilities to grow up and reach their full potential.

So Rich, So Poor looks at the policy decisions that are increasingly driving America’s
lower class into a state of deep poverty. Peter Edelman traces some of the blame all
the way back to 1996, and the decision to allow states to decide for themselves how to
distribute welfare funds. Peter notes that states have the option of not distributing any
cash assistance to low income citizens, and that the lack of federal cash assistance to
low income families has removed a safety net for America’s poorest citizens. The effect
of allowing states to decide how to distribute welfare funds has resulted in six million
Americans whose only source of income is food stamps. Clearly it is impossible to live,
let alone raise a family, when the only government support is food stamps and no cash
assistance.

While the situation for America’s poorest citizens might be dire, Peter Edelman does not
believe that those living in deep poverty are beyond saving. Peter has suggested that the
federal government should increase the amount of aid given to the poorest citizens, as
well as using federal legislation to create a living wage for all Americans. As noted in So
Rich, So Poor
much of America’s economic growth over the past forty years has gone
straight to America’s richest citizens. If America wants to alleviate its poverty problem,
economic growth has to support all Americans, especially the poorest citizens.

Peter Edelman interview for Democracy Now!

Purchase So Rich, So Poor

About the Author: Eric Mogel is an intern at Workplace Fairness. Eric grew up in
Manhattan Beach, California and holds a BA in history from the University of Michigan.
He is currently a second year student pursuing his JD at The George Washington
University Law School.


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