After more than a year working as a frontline employee at Kroger during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stuart Martin is now worried that his health care benefits could be reduced soon.
Martin is concerned about a proposal by Kroger Co., the nation’s largest traditional supermarket retailer, to change the health care plan of 3,100 workers at 21 stores in the Richmond region and Hampton Roads.
Kroger wants to eliminate the current model, which is a trust fund that workers and the company both pay into and which is jointly managed by the union and the retailer, and switch to a plan entirely controlled by the company.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents the Kroger employees, and the company have been engaged in negotiations since June over a new labor contract affecting workers at those stores that includes the new health care proposal.
The current contract expires on Aug. 7.
On Wednesday, Martin joined about a dozen other Kroger workers outside of the chain’s store in the Stonebridge mixed-use development off Midlothian Turnpike near Chippenham Parkway in Chesterfield County for a demonstration to protest the proposed changes to the health care plan. The union has been holding a series of demonstrations at area Kroger stores since mid-July and plans to do so next week.
“We are just trying to make some noise out here about things we need,” Martin said.
“We’re almost destined to get sick,” Martin said, referring to how grocery and food service workers have been at a higher risk to being exposed to COVID-19. “We are the only people out there servicing the whole world.”
The union says the proposed changes by Kroger ultimately will result in workers having little say in their health care coverage and having to pay more in health care costs.
“Kroger wants to force everyone onto a company health care plan which would be a disaster for our members,” said Mark Federici, president of UFCW Local 400, in a statement. “Union members would lose any say in our health care coverage, including the costs and benefits. Kroger could eliminate benefits or raise costs at any time without our input. This is no way to treat heroes who kept coming to work during a pandemic to keep these stores operating.”
Federici added that sales increased at every single Kroger under the contract. “This is no time for the company to propose cuts to health care benefits. These workers deserve to be rewarded for their service, not punished because of corporate greed.”
Kroger, which has 18 area stores, captured the No. 2 share of the region’s grocery market for the 12 months that ended March 31, according to trade publication Food World. The chain’s year-over-year sales at its area stores rose 6%, or by $36.3 million.
Kroger said the change to the health care plan is necessary.
“Kroger Mid-Atlantic believes the UFCW Local 400 and Employers Trust Fund is no longer meeting the needs of our associates or the company,” the company said in a statement.
“There are many ongoing issues with the fund, and the company is trying to address these in negotiations,” Kroger said. “It’s our hope that we reach an agreement at the bargaining table that continues to reward and recognize our hard-working team of associates in Richmond, including increasing wages and maintaining secure, reliable, affordable health care benefits.”
Martin, who has been an employee of Kroger for almost 11 years, said he is mostly happy with his job at Kroger mainly because of his union protections that he said have protected his pay of about $16 an hour as well as health care benefits that cost him about $15 a week.
When he was department manager for Kroger, he was previously on a company-controlled health care plan. Martin said he believes his health care costs could rise to about $38 a week under the company’s proposed plan for union workers.
He said he has worked full time without any missed time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia in early 2020, even though his work involving face-to-face interactions with multiple people could have exposed him to the virus.
“This is not right,” he said. “Workers like us — we are the people out here who serve the whole world. And then you want to take away our say in health care, and make us pay maybe three times as much.”