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Kroger workers reject company’s contract offer

PARKERSBURG — Kroger workers throughout the region have rejected a contract offer from the company and could go on strike.

UFCW Local 400 announced Friday Kroger workers overwhelmingly voted to reject the company’s latest contract proposal and to approve a strike.

The company and union have been negotiating a new contract. Union members have been voting on the contract all this week with the count completed on Friday.

“After tallying ballots in a vote count broadcast over Zoom video conference, members voted 1,551-130 to reject Kroger’s offer and 1,490-199 to approve a strike,” according to a statement on the union’s website. “As we told Kroger time and time again, we fully expected members to reject a proposal that puts our health care at risk. By voting this down so overwhelmingly, we have sent a message loud and clear to the company that we will not accept a substandard contract.”

On their website, the union has been encouraging members to vote no on the offer and approve a strike.

“Despite further talks this week, and even with confirmed COVID cases rising in stores, Kroger has not moved at all in bargaining this week and is continuing to insist on disastrous cuts to health care benefits,” said a posting on the website. “Our union and the bargaining advisory committee strongly recommend you vote NO to reject this offer and vote YES to approve a strike.”

Paula Ginnett, president for Kroger Mid-Atlantic Division, was in Parkersburg and other locations in West Virginia this past week as part of regular visits she makes to stores across the state.

“We are in West Virginia (Thursday) for a couple of reasons, one is to visit stores which is something that we do frequently,” she said. “I am also visiting with the associates in those stores.”

West Virginia has 40 stores with around 4,500 associates, Ginnett said.

“Kroger is an important driver of the West Virginia economy,” she said. “We have been here almost 100 years.

“We are really proud of that heritage. We are the fifth largest employer in the state.”

The company is also spending $40 million in the state to build two new state-of-the-art stores, one in Clarksburg and one in Scott’s Depot, officials said.

Ginnett said they were out telling people the story of what they are doing within the contract proposal to invest in their associates and their future in West Virginia. The company is offering a $20 million wage investment with pay increases for all associates with significant increases related to what the previous contract had, she said.

“Associates will also have faster wage growth than previously,” Ginnett said. “Under this offer all associates will see wage increases and some of those increases could be up to $4.65 (per hour depending on the position) over the life of the contract.”

They are investing in their healthcare program as part of the contract as well, she said.

Ginnett feels the offer is a substantial investment in wages and into their healthcare program.

“We think it not only sets us up now, but investing in the future of our stores,” she said. “We really believe the pay increases that we put into this contract are the best increases we have seen in pay in West Virginia in well over a decade.

“We believe the investments we put into healthcare is also going to keep our healthcare affordable. We are proud of our healthcare program and in the investment we are making in wages.”

Officials from Kroger said the contract offer increases pay for every bargaining unit associate in West Virginia; increases company contributions to maintain exceptional medical and dental benefits and improve vision benefits; keeps associate weekly contributions for health care benefits the same through 2021, with only modest increases after that; ensures that associates pay well below the national average for coverage; and supports upward mobility for all associates, providing them with opportunities for job promotions and career growth, according to a press release from the company.

“The company’s goal in every negotiation is to reach a fair and balanced agreement that provides a solid total compensation package of wages and benefits for associates and keeps the company competitive in the grocery retail market,” a statement in the press release said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has invested $830 million into additional associate pay, including bonuses; money into safety precautions; and more to make their front-line associates’ jobs safe and to make the customer experience better, Ginnett said.

They installed partitions in their stores, encouraged social distancing and requiring customers/employees to wear masks in order to make stores safe.

“Kroger continues to spend to implement safety standards and bonus for our associates,” Ginnett said.

The company has some remodeling plans for a number of stores in the state. Ginnett said she wasn’t sure where the Parkersburg, Belpre and Marietta area stores were in that listing. However, she said a number of stores are being remodeled.

“We continue to invest in West Virginia with this contract,” she said.

The union said Kroger’s proposal places a limit on the amount of money the company is required to pay to fund health care benefits, according to the post.

The union feels, according to advice from experts, as early as 14 months from now, this cap could be exceeded and several things could happen, including weekly contributions increasing; coverage will be slashed, with less coverage, higher deductibles, out of pockets, and co-pays, and increased prescription drug costs; and eligibility for benefits will change making them no longer eligible for health care.

Other problems include cuts to prescription benefits; no raises for some employees; part-time employees will top out at $12.20/hour with no chance of increase; and no premium increase for more than half of department heads.

UFCW Local 400 represents 35,000 members working in the retail food, health care, retail department store, food processing, service and other industries in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The union views the offer as something that could still potentially cut benefits.

“After months of working on the frontlines of a global pandemic, after being rightly called ‘heroes’ for our service, and after Kroger has made record profits while other businesses have suffered or closed, this is no time for Kroger to be cutting our benefits,” the union’s statement said. “We deserve to be rewarded, not punished, for our hard work.

“We hope this vote will make Kroger come to its senses. We’re ready to get back to the bargaining table and negotiate a deal that rewards hard-working Kroger associates.”

Jonathan Williams, communications director UFCW Local 400, said the union is committed to keep negotiating.

Right now, a strike is a possibility the union members are considering with the vote giving the authorization to conduct a strike. It will depend on continuing negotiations.

The union is working under a contract extension and will continue to work.

If it decides to strike it would have to cancel the current contract extension it is under and are required to give 72 hours notice before they could actually go on strike.

Everyone will remain on the job as negotiations continue.

“Our members have been very clear they aren’t going to accept health care cuts in the middle of a pandemic,” Williams said. “We hope Kroger comes to its senses and offers a better deal.”

In the meantime, they are preparing their members to go on strike if the decision is made. Members will receive training and more to be ready.

“Regardless of what happens at the negotiating table we have to get our preparations underway in order to be responsible,” Williams said.

Kroger released a statement Friday afternoon saying they too wish to continue negotiations.

“We are disappointed that our Comprehensive Best Offer to Settle was not accepted,” the statement said. “We remain committed to reaching an agreement.

“We have told union leaders we remain ready and willing to meet in additional negotiation sessions to see how we might resolve any outstanding issues.”

As for now, Kroger stores remain open to serve their customers.

“It’s business as usual at Kroger,” the company’s statement said. “Associates are continuing to report to work as scheduled.

“A strike authorization doesn’t mean a strike. At this point, the union has not called for a work stoppage. Our focus remains on our associates and recognizing and rewarding them for their hard work.”

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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