Was Kroger Demanding that Employees Return Emergency Pay?

The Kroger grocery store chain backed off of a policy that brought about criticism and increased scrutiny, calling it an “error” that only affected a small number of workers.

The photograph, first posted to Twitter on May 18 2020, showed the company’s payroll department attempting to collect more than $400 in emergency pay — as the company called it at one point — from one worker and instructing the worker to choose between making one lump sum payment, or splitting the repayment into three or five installments:

The document read in part:

If you need other arrangements to pay back this amount, please send an email using the information listed below. Failure to repay the overpayment could result in further collection efforts.

A separate Facebook post featuring the photograph was shared more than 3,000 times. A former Kroger employee, Veronica Copeland, also confirmed to Dissent magazine that she had received a similar letter:

“They ask you to acknowledge it, sign for it, and to agree to one of three payback terms: one, two, or three installments that they will take out of your paychecks,” she said. It struck her as strange, so she called her union representative right away. “They said, ‘Don’t sign anything.'”

Copeland wasn’t the only one who’d received such a letter. She noticed people on an online forum discussing the letters. “Somebody had brought it up and a number of people were chiming in that they were paying it back,” she said. “I’m off work for the foreseeable future, as long as they will extend my leave. I don’t have any income coming in, so I don’t understand where they expect it to come out of. And I have to imagine I’m not the only one in that boat.”

However, the collection effort will reportedly not continue. A Kroger spokesperson told us:

This was an unfortunate payroll accounting error. We’ve since instructed our payroll department to directly inform the small number of associates affected by the recent overpayments of COVID-19 Emergency Leave pay that we will not seek repayment.

Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents 13,000 Kroger employees in seven states as well as in Washington, D.C., contacted us saying that the union had confirmed that the company was no longer seeking repayment.

“We look forward to informing our union members who have received these collections letters that Kroger is no longer seeking money from them,” he told us. “We will also investigate any incidents in which a member may have already paid some money back to the company to ensure they are made whole. We are pleased Kroger has come to its senses. Now they can focus their attention on extending ‘hero pay’ until this crisis is over.”

Williams had told both us and Dissent earlier that the union had received “numerous reports” of Kroger employees receiving collection letters.

The photograph was posted just one day after Kroger — which owns several chains including Food 4 Less and Ralphs, among others — stopped paying workers an additional $2 per hour in hazard pay (or “hero pay,” as their public relations representatives termed it at the time.)  However, as Salon reported, Kroger will issue additional bonuses in two installments. The bonuses reportedly average $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-time workers, and it will be paid out on May 30 and June 18 2020.

Update May 19, 2020, 3:21 pm PST:Updated the story and our headline to reflect confirmation that Kroger would no longer seek repayment from its workers