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A new study reveals that many of the region’s grocery workers are near the bottom of the food chain

A photo collage of a man grabbing a banana in the top left, a headshot of another man in the bottom left and the economic roundtable logo on the right.
A.P., The Economic Table
Dan Flaming (lower left) is the president of The Economic Table, which published "Hungry at the Table," a white paper on grocery workers.

The analysis from the nonprofit Economic Roundtable has a simple title: “Hungry at the Table.”But there’s nothing simple about the plight of a growing number of the region’s grocery workers, in spite of being labeled “essential,” are finding it difficult to put food on their own tables.

"We surveyed 37,000 workers and more than 10,000 responded," said Dan Flaming, president of The Economic Roundtable. “That takes a lot of effort to get high response rates, so we put an envelope around the investigation. And so, we chose a single company: Kroger, to focus on.”

Kroger is the parent company of Fred Meyer stores. The analysis particularly polled Kroger workers in California, Colorado and Washington.

Flaming visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the study and its recommendation.

“It was appalling to us that people who have their hands on food all day long put it in our grocery bags as we check out go home and eat hot dogs and ramen, or maybe skip a meal or don't get as much to eat as they want.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition. On Boise State Public Radio News Good morning. I'm George Prentice. A disturbing new report reveals that more grocery workers struggle to put food on their own tables. The study comes from the nonprofit research group Economic Roundtable and for certain, it is generating plenty of conversation and an equal level of concern. Dan Flaming is here. He is the president of the nonprofit The Economic Roundtable. Mr. Flaming, good morning.

DANIEL FLAMING: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: Your analysis particularly looked at employees of the Kroger Company. Here in Idaho, we know Kroger to be the parent company of, among other things, Fred Meyer stores. Mr. Flaming, I'm curious about some of the conversations that you and your colleagues have been having in the wake of this report going public and getting so much attention. It has been on almost all major media platforms. And I'm guessing you've been a part of some of these conversations or heard about some of them.

FLAMING: One of the things we're wondering about is what it takes to actually change Kroger's behavior. Their business strategy has been profitable, their cash reserves and stock have increased, CEO compensation has gone up. So they've been rewarded by the market for the path that they’re on. And we wonder whether investors will notice that the company is being hollowed out, and what it takes to put a realistic value on the long term trajectory of an unsustainable employment model.

PRENTICE: And when you say “hollowed out,” can I assume that you're talking about putting the majority of that weight on the backs of their workforce?

FLAMING: That, and also Kroger, has grown by buying up of their brands, for example, Fred Meyer and then cutting costs. So, the levels of service that made those brands popular, that those levels of service have declined and in fact, workers have said that health and safety is being endangered by work that's uncompleted in stores, so. In the long run, I do think that that hollows out the value of the brand.

PRENTICE: One of the first things that leaps out from the study is that more than three quarters of the workers in this analysis meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's definition of food insecure. And simply put, that means they might not know where their next meal comes from.

FLAMING: It was appalling to us that people who have their hands on food all day long… put it in our grocery bags as we check out, go home and eat hot dogs and ramen, or maybe skip a meal or don't get as much to eat as they want. It's appalling, and Kroger has the most meager of food discounts, workers can get a 10 percent discount on a Kroger brand, for example, dry package of something with Kroger on the label. But that's not an affordable or nutritious diet for workers.

PRENTICE: For the record, this analysis includes you speaking to Kroger workers in Washington, California and Colorado. Idaho, as people here know… our wage of most employees at this level is lower than these states. We're still at the bottom of the scale of minimum wage. And also in your study, it's my understanding that a fair amount of the workers that you heard from are homeless.

Economic Roundtable

FLAMING: Idaho, as I understand, is governed by the federal minimum wage, so it's a very low. The. The economic precariousness of workers is both the result of low wages and also part time hours… more than two thirds of workers are part time. And yet Kroger is the only employer for 84 percent of workers, so. Schedule some of that result that it's just hard to hang on to another job when your schedule changes with a day's notice or even on the same day. So it's unpredictable. Scheduling keeps workers from having another source of income. So the. The consequences are the workers cannot afford necessities, they can't afford groceries, they can't afford rent, clothing, shoes, transportation. Many workers get public benefit assistance, for example, food stamps. And the consequence of precarious housing and being unable to afford rent is homelessness, so 14 percent of workers are homeless today or have been homeless in the past year. Sleeping in their cars, sleeping in a shelter or couch, surfing with a friend. But the consequences are devastating for worker well-being to have earnings that are this low.

PRENTICE: I'd be remiss if I did not note that Kroger officials called this report misleading, and that they quoting here “put their associates first.” And to that, you would say what?

FLAMING: I don't see evidence of a generous spirit on the part of the corporation. I do believe they try to burnish their public image and they have campaigns with appealing slogans. But it indeed seems purposeful to have more than two thirds of your workers at the bottom of the pay scale with part time jobs and. I mean, some of the places that work homeless workers sleep is the stores where they're employed. It can't go unnoticed that workers are in fact desperate. And to my mind, it raises the question of whether this is a deliberate corporate policy to make workers compliant. So. I appreciate their words, but I don't think their actions support their words.

PRENTICE: Why Kroger? Why did you choose Kroger for this analysis?

FLAMING: Anecdotally, Kroger has the reputation… the most egregious reputation for its employment practices among the large grocery chains. At a practical level, it's a huge effort. We surveyed thirty-seven thousand workers and more than 10000 responded with a 28 percent response rate. So. That takes a lot of effort to get high response rates, so we kind of have to put our we had to to put an envelope around the investigation. And so, we chose a single company, Kroger, to focus on.

PRENTICE: That's a pretty healthy sample. Can I assume that you were surprised at what you learned?

FLAMING: I was surprised by the food insecurity, and I was surprised that the level of homelessness is that high. We had picked up some of this in focus group meetings. We used a series of focus groups to develop the survey questionnaire. So we picked up some of these issues. But for grocery workers for four, 78 percent to be food insecure when that is their life's work, to put food on our tables really took me aback.

PRENTICE: Does your analysis include recommendations?

FLAMING: Yeah, we have a series of recommendations. The first of which is to bring Kroger workers up to a living wage, which is about $880 a week. We. Recommend that Kroger provide a 50 percent discount on any groceries in the store for its workers that it give immediate assistance to workers who are homeless or at risk of being evicted. We also recommend adding workers to Kroger's board of directors that they actually have a voice of workers in their decision making.

PRENTICE: My guess is you have heard from some folks saying, “Well, why don't you look at some of the other giants,” but do you consider this a representation of the industry?

FLAMING: Kroger is in a race to the bottom with other large retail chains, so Kroger does not stand alone in the service sector or the retail sector with these kinds of business practices and. Or I think that ultimately we do need public sector regulation that food integrity and food reliability is a fundamental public interest. And Kroger workers have have had a very difficult time during the pandemic. I mean. Anti-social behavior on every front, driving domestic relations, even self-injury has has skyrocketed during the pandemic. People are socially isolated, they're anxious, they're frustrated and grocery stores or a venue that has remained open and where this gets played out, so. Over half of workers have had unpleasant experiences, people who spit on them refuse to wear masks made threats of violence. So we need to have reliable, safe food distribution system and I think ultimately we will need to have the public sector set some ground rules for for all of these retailers.

PRENTICE: I guess the first irony that jumped out was obviously the fact that you did analysis on people who work with food, and yet they are food insecure. And maybe the bigger irony is that they are on the front line in this pandemic. And while customer interaction has been harsh and sometimes worse, and more is expected of them on a regular basis, they're near the bottom of the…here's another pardon the analogy, but the food chain, as far as compensation.

FLAMING: And certainly my experience from all of our focus groups and my own interactions, just as a grocery buyer with people who work in grocery stores is that these are mature, competent adults with a full set of brain social grace, self-awareness, awareness of other people there. They are not throwaway workers. Nobody is a throwaway worker. But. These workers are not people who should be discounted and what they contribute to our lives by allowing us to have food on our table is essential so they truly do deserve more respect than they are getting used to.

PRENTICE: Dan Fleming is the president of the nonprofit research group Economic Roundtable. Mr. Flaming, thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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