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Fred Meyer, QFC to end COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated workers

A file photo of the Hawthorne Fred Meyer store in Portland, Ore., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.
Kate Davidson
A file photo of the Hawthorne Fred Meyer store in Portland, Ore., on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Unvaccinated workers at Fred Meyer stores in Oregon and Washington will no longer get two weeks of emergency paid leave if they contract COVID-19.

Both Fred Meyer and Quality Food Centers are ending some COVID-19 benefits for unvaccinated workers, in line with new policies from their parent company, the grocery giant Kroger Co.

Kroger is pushing its workforce of roughly half a million to get vaccinated without explicitly mandating the shots. The company’s new policies were first reported byThe Wall Street Journal and apply unless they conflict with local regulations.

Such moves could become more common if federal vaccine mandates remain entangled in court. In Oregon, the fate ofa vaccine-or-test rule for businesses with more than 100 employees depends on what happens on the federal level.

A Fred Meyer spokesperson confirmed to OPB that Kroger’s policy changes apply to its stores as well. They outlined an approach that contains carrots and sticks, but no mandates.

The carrot: Both Fred Meyer and QFC will continue paying employees $100 for getting fully vaccinated.

But the companies will end special COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated associates. The emergency program provided up to two weeks paid time off if a worker was diagnosed with COVID-19, was placed under mandatory quarantine, or had to self-isolate with COVID-19 symptoms.

Fred Meyer said unvaccinated associates who come down with COVID-19 can still use regular paid time off or apply for unpaid leave. The special leave will still be available to fully vaccinated workers who experience breakthrough cases.

The Journal reported Kroger’s policy changes don’t apply to employees with approved medical or religious exemptions.

The companies also plan to make some unvaccinated staff pay more for health care.

On Jan. 1, 2022, Fred Meyer and QFC plan to implement a $50 monthly surcharge for unvaccinated managers and other nonunion employees. The change doesn’t apply to associates covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

The union that represents roughly 10,000 Fred Meyer associates, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, could not immediately be reached for comment on the changes.

Separately, the union and the two companies are embroiled in contract negotiations this week. The union hasthreatened to strike as soon as Friday over what it sees as unfair labor practices.

Kroger’s tightening of COVID-19 related benefits is meant to spur vaccination without alienating grocery staff during a national labor shortage.

But the move could have unintended consequences.

Hourly workers may not have enough savings to stay home, Molly Kinder of the Brookings Institutiontold the Journal. That could increase the pressure on unvaccinated employees to report to work while sick.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kate Davidson