Being an “Essential Worker” Grocery Stocker in Trump Country by George Fish
Being an “Essential Worker” Grocery Stocker in Trump Country
It was with much interest that I read Hamilton Nolan’s “A Year in the Life of Safeway 1048” on my fellow grocery workers in Arlington, Virginia, in the April 2021 In These Times, a nationwide socialist news magazine. I can certainly relate as I too am an “essential worker” produce and dairy stocker, in my case at Kroger J-100 on the sprawling East Side of Indianapolis, Indiana, a state that, same as in 2016, went heavily for Trump, though Indianapolis itself did not. But, unlike the Safeway workers mentioned by Nolan, I’ve done fairly well as an “essential worker” now since mid-March 2020. Unlike many of my friends and acquaintances who worked prior to COVID-19 as musicians, or in bars and restaurants, or in other occupations in the music/entertainment business, I’ve had steady, full-time work all year round, with added benefits provided by both our union (same as at Safeway 1048, the UFCW; in our case, the Indiana mega-local Local 700) and by Kroger itself, in addition to the union contract’s full-time worker benefit of paid vacation time. Also, in contradistinction to the Safeway workers, who work a six-day week, I work five days a week, a 40-hour week of working eight hours each, with a half-hour’s unpaid lunch. But with not much overtime, as Kroger really frowns on paying overtime pay, and the corporate honchos tell the local managers not to schedule or allow overtime unless it can’t be avoided. In fact, individual workers themselves have been admonished for running up too much overtime!
Kroger employees and customers are required both by city ordinance and Kroger policy to wear masks while working or shopping in the store, and the customers are quite generally compliant, although the mask mandate is not enforced. And some customers do cheat a little—their masks not covering their nostrils. But, overwhelmingly, they are fully compliant, although a certain customer of my close acquaintance, an old high school classmate, deliberately flaunts his being “noncompliant” and refuses to wear a mask at all. Another customer I’ve seen in the store a couple of times, an older man who also doesn’t wear a mask, walks around the store with two six-guns in a shoulder holster. (Never can tell when some deranged banana is going to attack you!) But, after all, this is a state that went overwhelmingly for Trump—twice.
Kroger has done really well during the pandemic, revenues up 30% over 2019, and this despite many product shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, and products unavailable. Early during the pandemic, in March and April 2020, there were changes in sick pay allowance because of coronavirus, plus a union-negotiated Hero Bonus pay of an extra $2.00 an hour for each hour worked. However, despite its wish to do so, the union could not get Kroger to agree to extend these; and later on, employees who had to self-quarantine for two weeks due to coronavirus did so without pay. And, of course, employees did come down with coronavirus, or were exposed to people who had, and were thus required to quarantine. Also, as a public business with many customers coming and going on a daily basis seven days a week from early morning to late at night, the risk of infection is always there. I was one of the lucky ones; though I had to be tested three times, all my tests were negative. Further, although Kroger did not extend the Hero Bonus pay it had negotiated, it did pass out $700 in bonuses to front-line workers late spring and summer of 2020. (But nothing since.) In addition, as with many other workers, in 2020 I received $1,200 in economic stimulus money from the federal government, and in 2021, $2,000. As an older worker (I’m now 74, but can’t afford to retire), I also receive Social Security, and also receive a small pension through the UFCW Consolidated Pension Fund—even though I still work full-time, the union wanted to make sure I got at least some pension while I was still alive to collect it! So, for me personally, one could even say I made out like the proverbial bandit.
Yes, I was one of the luckier ones. Between my wages and the bonus pay, my Social Security and my pension, and the economic stimulus, I’m making over $40,000/year for both 2020 and 2021. I’m also single with no dependents, and Indianapolis is a cheap place to live as far as major cities go. Yet, even at this, I’m still like the typical US worker described in Alan Nasser’s excellent economic tome, Overripe Economy (Pluto Press, 2018; I reviewed the book in MR Online, mronline.org, May 25, 2019), having to leverage credit and amass credit debt to make up for low wages. For, in addition to credit card debt, I also have to pay a monthly car payment and for full-coverage auto insurance, which comes to a hefty nearly $570 a month just for certain basic transportation needs, but still excluding gas and registration, license plates. (Indianapolis public mass transit is horrible, one of the worst big-city systems abounding.) But I feel very lucky indeed to have my Kroger job. I’ve had it only since August 15, 2015, and had to work temp jobs before then, including at the infamous Amazon warehouses. But being in a union job has also meant steady pay increases, so that my pay has gone from starting at $10.70 an hour up to its present $15.25 an hour. I’m “overqualified” for my job at having a Bachelor’s degree in economics, but then, Indiana is a notoriously bad state for college grads to find decent employment. So, indeed, I do feel lucky, especially to be so employed at my age, despite job duties that require lifting 50-pound sacks of potatoes, 40-pound cases of bananas, and 30-pound bags of onions in produce, and multiple lifting and twisting in dairy filling the shelves with gallon and half-gallon jugs of milk in a hurry.
But not all is so wonderful, I have to admit. My job requires me to work the social life-killing second shift (killing essentially what little social life was possible during the pandemic), as well, since I’m in retail, virtually the whole of every weekend. Also, there’s little rank-and-file involvement in the union local, as almost all the union work is done by paid professional staff. However, I’m very impressed with our union’s paid staffers, who are quite on top of things, visit the individual Kroger stores regularly, and are quite solicitous of worker’s concerns and grievances. Further, the union staff is thoroughly integrated racially, as befits a racially integrated workforce at the Kroger conglomerate. And which just offered employees a $100 bonus upon proof of full COVID-19 vaccination. (I’ve already received mine.) But in response to the cities of Long Beach, California and Seattle, Washington mandating an additional $4.00 an hour hazard pay for “essential workers,” Kroger cried “Foul!” and closed two stores in Long Beach and two in Seattle earlier this year—further exacerbating food deserts in those communities. But Kroger revenues are substantially up due to coronavirus, and Kroger CEO Rodney McMullin gets $21 million a year in salary alone! Such is now what it’s like being an “essential worker” in Trump Country.
In addition to being an “essential worker,” George Fish is an extensively published socialist writer and poet who has contributed to several left and literary publications.