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Idaho grocery worker union rep. says, ‘There’s no labor shortage, there’s a pay shortage.’

A photo collage with a man stocking produce at the grocery store on the left and stickers that say "Idahoans for a fair wage" on the right.
A.P., Fair Wage Idaho
NPR reports that “grocery store workers are catching the virus in higher numbers.”

In a January 11 earnings callto investors, Albertson’s CEO Vivek Sankaran said that the company had been hoping to recover from recent supply issues, but the omicron variant of COVID-19 “put a dent in that.”

NPR reports that “grocery store workers are catching the virus in higher numbers.” Meanwhile, those same workers have been on the frontlines during the pandemic, where they face the wrath of frustrated and often angry customers.

Meanwhile, there’s an effort to take the issue of a livable wage to Idaho voters this fall. The group Fair Wage Idaho is trying to get enough signatures to put a minimum wage initiative on the ballot.

“We had about just over 12,000 signatures coming into the new year,” said Charity Strong, Fair Wage Idaho campaign manager. "We have three months left and we have a plan in place that a statewide effort to get to 65,000 so that Idahoans can vote for this come November."

Eshaia and Strong visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the region’s essential workers and their pursuit of a livable wage.

“There's no labor shortage. There's a pay shortage. People have had enough. They're not interested in working for minimum wage when they're worth more.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. This week on this broadcast, we are considering the ongoing quest for a livable wage. Anyone wanting to know the minimum wage in Idaho need look no further than the floor. That is to say the floor of the federal minimum wage. $7.25 an hour. It has not moved since 2009. Do the math: work eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks, no vacation, no sick days, and you'll have $15000 per year before taxes. Charity Strong is here. She is campaign manager for the organization Fair Wage Idaho. Miss Strong, good morning.

CHARITY STRONG: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Indeed, there are thousands of Idahoans who are making minimum wage. That said… help me out with this…what we're really talking about here is truly a base wage.

STRONG: I think that Idahoans and really everyone deserves to be able to make a wage where they can pay their bills, they can feed their kids and they can get medical care.

PRENTICE: I want to bring another voice into this conversation, and that is Miles Eshaia, communications coordinator with UFCW 555. which includes Idaho and UFCW is United Food and Commercial Workers, and that includes grocery workers at Albertsons and Smiths stores here in Idaho. And we'll talk a bit about that as well. Mr. Eshaia, good morning.

MILES ESHAIA: Good morning, how are you today, George?

PRENTICE: I'm very well. Let's talk about grocery workers. There was a survey by The Economic Roundtable that was rather stunning, at least to a layperson, that tells us some grocery workers in the West are, ironically struggling to put food on their own tables. And I'm going to guess that you and your colleagues have heard these stories for some time.

ESHAIA: Of course, we have, and I wouldn’t call it ironic, I would call it sad and unjust. You know, this is this is not something that individuals who work in the food service industry… in the retail grocery sector… should have to deal with. The most important thing is being able to put a roof over your head and feed your family. That's why you go to work. The federal minimum wage being set at $7.25, and Idaho not having its own minimum wage above that is just criminal.

PRENTICE: Charity Strong, so let's talk about this. I have to assume there is some kind of effort, if not to take it immediately to the Legislature, than to take it to voters.

STRONG: What we've seen over the last 10 years or more, since we increased minimum wage in Idaho is no progress. Legislators have brought legislation in front of the House and Senate, and it never moves outside of committee. We currently have two legislative tries in the session, both of which will likely fail, just given the politics in Idaho and so Idahoans For a Fair Wage have done for the past two or three years really is to embrace this initiative effort… it really centers those that are directly impacted by the minimum wage. It's us telling the Legislature and the powers that be that we want to be involved in making sure that we can take care of our families and our communities. And so we're collecting signatures right now to increase the minimum wage for standard wages to $13 per hour…tipped workers to $10 per hour… by 2026x. We also have three other items in that initiative. One restores the local option so that communities, municipalities, counties, cities are able to increase the wage according to their cost of living. We also remove the $4.25 training wage that's been used for folks under 20 in their training period. And we're also attaching a cost of living increase starting in 2027 once we're at that $13 base

PRENTICE: Charity Strong, you know, as well as anyone that getting an initiative on a statewide ballot in Idaho is not the easiest thing to do. But what's your sense? How is this campaign going?

STRONG: Based on the election of 2020, that's how we get our number of signatures that we need. We need 65,000… to be more specific, 64,945 valid signatures. That means they're registered to vote, their name and address and signature all match, according to each of the counties. And we've really gained some momentum. We had about just over 12,000 signatures coming into the new year. We have three months left and we have a plan in place that a statewide effort to get to 65,000 so that Idahoans can vote for this come November.

PRENTICE: Miles Eshaia, as recent as this morning, I'm reading a report that's been in a number of papers…a survey of grocery workers, in fact… that says about two thirds continue to receive less than two weeks notice of their schedules. That does include full timers, too. And that's a challenge as well.

ESHAIA: So I'll try to condense this as quickly as possible for your listeners. UCFW local 555 operates in Oregon, Southwest Washington, Idaho and Wyoming. Idaho and Wyoming was a recent absorption as of last year. So prior to that, we just operated in Oregon and southwest Washington, where we had about 25000 members. One of the things we worked really hard to pass, specifically in Oregon, Washington is a little more difficult as we just have a small part of it. But we worked to pass in Oregon, and Washington has their own version as well… with something that we called Fair Work Week, which was a campaign to basically force employers to write out at first one week of schedules and then two week schedules prior to that in the state of Oregon. We had very similar next day scheduling. We have scheduling practices where managers would change the schedules the next day. And sometimes workers would just get a call, and that's not right. So we worked really hard to get to get fair scheduling passed because that was a necessity that we felt for workers to be able to plan their lives, to be able to decide, “This is my plan for the next two weeks. I want to be able to take my kids to the doctor. I want to be able to take my kids to their softball game,” whatever it is. Without that scheduling practice in place, that's not possible. Now that doesn't really speak to the minimum wage in Idaho situation. But as I said, we've recently taken on Idaho. That's our jurisdiction now. And our goal is to work really hard to bring similar worker protections to people in Idaho and Wyoming as well.

PRENTICE: Miles, can you talk a little bit about the state of your union, in particular, and unions in general… and the appetite for more workers to want or need representation?

ESHAIA: Workers throughout the pandemic have been treated like they are disposable when they really are essential. It's very important to remember that retail was not able to work from home during this pandemic. And what you effectively have is a reflection of our society in that grocery workers, workers who are truly essential to keeping their communities going are gaining a lot more respect than they have in the past, and rightfully so. These are people who keep our food lines open. These are people who worked in check stands to make sure that when people were fighting over toilet paper that it was still an option. The need for unionization and the need for workers to come together to demand more from their employers has never been shown more in the past two years. But really, for the past 20, you've seen sort of an uptick in unionization and looking at minimum wage in Idaho, being set at the federal standard with just, you know, $7.25 if it as a community or as a society, as if we allow employers, you know, any way you want to phrase it, if we are OK with an individual being paid a substandard, unlivable wage, we're both recognizing that that job needs to be done, but also that we don't really care if the person who's doing it lives in poverty.

And that's not who we are as a society. That's not who we are as Americans, it's not who we are as individuals. We don't really believe that individuals deserve to work 40 hours a week and be in poverty. So you need for unionization has never been stronger. It's really great to see, and I'm really hoping that, you know, once the pandemic is over, that push continues because workers deserve more from their employers. It's simply not OK for corporations to take all these profits out of these communities sometimes shift them overseas and not put them back in setting a minimum wage. I think I think I've heard people saying, set the floor. I don't really like that term. I more prefer that a rising tide raises all boats. If you if you raise the base wage, the minimum wage, whatever you want to call it, you really are pushing upper wages, you know, higher tier wages up as well, because individuals will not accept just working for the minimum, they want to be paid more. And it's really a reflection of what do we set our minimum society standards as

PRENTICE: Charity Strong, tell me about some of your conversations. What moves the needle? How are you engaging with grocery workers or folks near the base wage. What works?

STRONG: What we found over the past couple of years is that this isn't really a partisan issue. What we need to do is get into our communities and partner with faith communities and students and educators and child care workers and labor unions. Honestly, they're really setting the groundwork for what we need to do just as communities that live together. We don't want folks to suffer. We don't want people to live in poverty. We want everyone to be able to at least have a livable wage. And so our strategy has really been to take that nonpartisan approach and just reach into communities and say, how can we make this work?

ESHAIA: It's really important to remember who benefits from increasing the minimum wage a lot. There's a lot of misconceptions out there. One of the, you know, some of the more common misconceptions are that, oh, it's just teenagers who benefit from the minimum wage. But the reality is that 60 percent are not teens, they're 25 or older, actually. People think that, oh, it's just people who work part time or who work after school. But 58 percent of these individuals are women. A lot of people think that,”Oh, people who work minimum wages live with parents.” And that's not true. 29 percent have children. Fifty five percent of these people work full time. It's not just extra spending money, either. Forty six percent of these individuals have some form of higher education. The reflection of the minimum wage is really just employers saying, Well, if I can pay someone this minimum amount, that is what I'm going to pay them. You know you as a business, your goals make as much money as possible, and how you do that is by paying your workers as little as possible. And once again, I don't think that we as a society, it doesn't matter what side of the aisle you're on are OK with that. People do not deserve to be working full time and be in poverty.

PRENTICE: Charity, to Miles’ point that this does cut across and deeply into the middle class, those that oppose any increase of the minimum wage would have us think that we're only talking about high schoolers.

STRONG: You know, that is a lot of the rhetoric that we hear. We also hear a misconception about people not wanting to work, leaving the job market. And I think specifically related to this pandemic and this this great resignation. We're hearing additional stories and so it will be interesting to see how this plays out because the folks that we're that we're trying to help in our communities are folks that are working two or three jobs 80 hours a week just so that they can keep a roof over their head and food in their bellies.

ESHAIA: So this concept and you taught you mentioned a rhetoric, a concerted no on our sort of rhetoric against raising the minimum wage kind of to that point. The concept that there's a labor shortage in this country is actually fairly laughable. There's no labor shortage in this country. There's a pay shortage. People have had enough. They're not interested in working for minimum wage when they're worth more. You know, people can't live on $7.25. So I hear the term labor shortage and it just it's just so ridiculous. There is no labor shortage in this country. There's a shortage of pay.

PRENTICE: He is Miles Eshaia, UFCW 555, and she is Charity Strong with Fair Wage Idaho. Thank you for giving us some time this morning.

STRONG: Thank you, George. I really appreciate you bringing light to this issue. And if folks are interested, they can look us up at FairWage.ID.org

ESHAIA: And thank you for having me as well. Definitely support the effort to raise the wage in Idaho.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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