We Say Supermarket Workers Are Essential Workers...

The Lempert Report
July 29, 2020

Oxfam Asks If They Are Being Treated That Way?

A new analysis of U.S. supermarket chains’ formal policies for their workers, which were put in place during Covid-19, was released earlier this month by the nonprofit group Oxfam that works to end injustice of poverty. The analysis shows that retailers need to improve their policies.

The past few months is the first time in many of our lives that we have experienced empty shelves in our supermarkets and as a result much attention has been focused on our grocery workers and seen how much we depend on them. As a result we have seen grocery chains temporarily boost their hourly wages, give them bonus pay, and other organizations showcase them and thank them in their TV ads and in store. Texas retailer H-E-B announced ‘Texas Proud Pay’ the largest wage increase in the company’s history permanently. Many shoppers, also for the first time, are taking the time out to say “thank you” to these workers.

All this would seem to have those who work in supermarkets smiling from ear to ear; but the Oxfam analysis portrays a very different picture. As a result of their analysis, Oxfam is calling on supermarket chains to adopt “a fundamentally new worker-focused corporate policy that ensures workers can exercise their voice and influence decisions that impact and protect their lives, along with customers”

The nonprofit’s analysis looked at the five key areas they felt most important: paid sick leave, hazard pay, protective gear, engagement with workers and worker representatives and gender and dependent care. Oxfam worked with labor unions and others to identify gaps between each company’s stated policies and implementation – they also reached out to each of the companies they analyzed for comment: of the 5 companies analyzed only Albertsons, Kroger KR and Walmart WMT offered responses, Costco and Whole Foods/Amazon AMZN did not respond. 

It is important to note that there are also many regional and smaller grocery chains, and independent grocers that were not analyzed that have differing policies that are not included in this report.

There is no doubt, as Oxfam reports, that during the pandemic grocers have seen huge increases in their sales and profits - as shoppers hoarded everything from frozen pizza and canned foods to toilet paper. Oxfam argues that the essential workers, often low-wage workers should also benefit from the in some cases, record sales and earnings. The entire financial picture has yet to be seen since the added costs of signage, plexiglass shields, increased sanitation procedures on everything from check stand belts to electrostatic cleaning of shopping carts, the shorter hours of operation and in some cases having to add guards to enforce face mask wearing and even the expense of store closures due to looting is calculated.

That does not mean that these front line workers should be ignored or taken advantage of. They should be paid fairly, have paid sick time (during and after the pandemic is over) and be treated as we proclaim them – as essential workers.

Oxfam has once again opened our eyes; however their report highlights just five chains, albeit the largest ones with the most market share, that serve the most shoppers in the U.S.; but also lets remember there are almost 40,000 supermarkets in the nation and many of them have good principles and practices and are doing the right thing for their workers.