When Jerry Barth became an apprentice meat cutter at a Grand Union supermarket at age 19, he loved the job right away. There was something about learning to become an expert in something that customers counted on him for that just clicked — and 40 years later, as a full-time meat department manager at a Stop & Shop in Unionville, Connecticut, Barth remains passionate about his work.
“It’s kind of in your blood if you go into the retail world,” Barth said. “I know people on a personal level. They come in and they say, ‘Jerry, this is what I need,’ and I can figure [it] out. I thrive on the ability to provide that service.”
Barth, who has been with Stop & Shop for 25 years, is also pleased with the pay and benefits he takes home as a full-time, unionized employee in the supermarket industry even as he observes that committing to a job that typically requires working nights and weekends might not appeal to everyone.
“I've worked six days a week my entire life. I will work a six- or seven-hour day, and I have no problem working an eight- or nine-hour day,” he said.
Chuck Leas, a 30-year Stop & Shop veteran who is a full-time customer service department head at a supermarket the grocer runs in Waterbury, Connecticut, also feels good about the time he has spent in the grocery industry, noting that he was able to raise three children and pay off his house. But he said his role has become more demanding since he joined the company, which is owned by Ahold Delhaize.
“The biggest thing that’s changed is that they want more out of you without any extra pay or any extra hours,” Leas said, adding that he has had to handle tasks an assistant would have taken care of because no one was hired to fill that role. “They just keep putting more on your plate.”
‘The great resignation is real’
While Barth and Leas have been able to build solid careers as grocery workers, they have done so in an industry often criticized for offering difficult jobs that come with rough working conditions and low pay.
The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 highlighted the uneasy relationship between grocers and the people they employ to run their stores. Grocers initially provided extra hourly pay to compensate workers compelled to confront risky conditions to keep stores open, then drew harsh criticism from union officials and politicians for ending the hazard pay programs even as the public health crisis continued to rage.
“When they took away the $2 an hour, I immediately felt it. It [hurt] even more when nothing else had changed and everyone feels so pinched and anxious and scared,” said Adam Kaat, a former Whole Foods worker and author of the book “Life on the Grocery Line: A Frontline Experience in a Global Pandemic.”
But workers and labor advocates have more recently been able to make progress in their quest for better terms, energized by the pandemic-spurred labor shortage grocers have been contending with.
For example, when the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local representing workers at Colorado supermarket chain King Soopers called a strike in January to demand higher wages and stronger benefits, Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7, used the tight job market as leverage.
“The great resignation is real. Workers are rethinking their relationship with employers, and that’s what’s happening right now with King Soopers,” Cordova said as the walkout began. The union and the Kroger-owned chain ultimately agreed on a deal that included a raise of more than $5 per hour for some workers.
In April, seven UFCW locals in Southern California negotiated a pact with Albertsons and Kroger to provide workers with higher pay, guaranteed hours, and stronger health and retirement benefits. Meanwhile, UFCW Local 555 in December reached an agreement with Kroger’s Fred Meyer and QFC banners in Oregon following a brief strike that it said would be “the best contract in UFCW 555 history.”
Earlier this year, Stop & Shop and the UFCW agreed on a four-year contract with Stop & Shop that provides a starting hourly wage of $15 for part-time workers and $17.30 for employees in full-time roles. The contract covers workers for the chain in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“Companies aren’t going to suddenly wake up and say, ‘Oh, gosh, workers have really been suffering in this pandemic. We need to make things better for them.’”
Associate professor of sociology, State University of New York at Buffalo
Still, while grocery workers may have made some gains, it’s too early to gauge how the shifting power dynamics between retailers and workers will play out over the long term, labor experts said.
“Companies aren’t going to suddenly wake up and say, ‘Oh, gosh, workers have really been suffering in this pandemic. We need to make things better for them,’” said Erin Hatton, associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who studies relationships between workers and employers. “It's about the pressure that workers are bringing to their employers. That is what will result in change, maybe eventually.”
Beyond steps taken by long-established labor groups like the UFCW, recent unionization efforts by workers at companies like Starbucks and Amazon could be viewed as an early indication that the balance of power has truly begun to move away from retail employers, said Chris Tilly, a professor and labor expert at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
In May, workers at a Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, Massachusetts, said they intended to form a union in an effort to improve their pay and benefits. “With the same instinctive teamwork we use every day to break pallets, work the load, bag groceries, and care for our customers, we joined together to look out for each other and improve our workplace together,” the group, called Trader Joe’s United, wrote in a letter to Trader Joe’s CEO Dan Bane.
Tilly said he thinks that in spite of steps workers have been taking to unite, it will be difficult for them to make large-scale, long-term gains in their relationships with large companies — especially in an age when holding down expenses is a top priority for businesses.
“It could definitely change things, but we're a long way away from the scale of things that would really shift” the relationship between retail workers and employers, Tilly said. “There’s been a decline in the quality of front-line jobs in retail” since the 1950s and 1960s, when retail jobs were more likely to be unionized than they are today.
Even as some workers push to unionize, others have opted not to band together. Last year, for example, workers at distribution centers operated by meal kit company HelloFresh in Aurora, Colorado, and Richmond, California, defeated proposals to join labor union United Here.
The impact of declining union membership
The percentage of U.S. workers represented by labor unions has declined precipitously since the middle of the 20th century, Tilly said. Nearly a third of workers in the United States were unionized in the 1960s, NPR reported in 2015. By 2021, however, just over 10% of American workers belonged to a labor union, down from 20% in 1983, according to the Pew Research Center.
“The lack of institutional guardrails for job quality on the one hand, and the process of sort of a discounting model that involves keeping prices as low as possible has involved a strategy of shifting retail overall to a model where labor and market strategies” are closely intertwined, said Tilly.
According to Tilly, structural changes in the retail sector, including ownership of publicly traded retailers, have fundamentally changed the way corporations view their workforces. Whereas publicly traded retailers in the past were often controlled by families that could make workers a priority, he said, large retailers today frequently answer to large-scale investors, like mutual fund managers, who are focused on quarterly results.
“That really meant shareholders trying to squeeze dividends and increase share price … and shifted the balance of power within public companies,” said Tilly.
As of March 31, more than 21% of the outstanding shares of Kroger belonged to either mutual fund manager The Vanguard Group or BlackRock, another investment company, according to the supermarket chain. BlackRock also owns about 5% of Ahold Delhaize as of September 11, 2021, making it the Dutch grocery chain’s largest shareholder.
Private equity players also have impacted how retailers deal with employees, said Errol Schweizer, an advisor to the natural foods industry who formerly served as vice president of grocery for Whole Foods Market and is critical of how retailers treat workers.
“When you have private equity on the board, or owning the company, it's primarily about trimming costs, reducing overhead and trying to drive profitability even if the company isn't growing,” he said. “It's the opposite of [building] an enriching career path.”
Another reason for labor advocates to be wary is that the difficulty retailers have lately been having finding and retaining workers is likely to be transitory, meaning employers can be expected to take steps that advance their own-self interest as economic conditions evolve, said Tilly, pointing to Walmart as an example.
Walmart pressed Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $5.15 per hour in 2005, saying that working families needed a financial boost, Tilly noted. The company again asked federal lawmakers to increase the rate in 2019, saying the $7.25 per hour minimum wage at that time was insufficient.
But according to a study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office requested by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and published in late 2020, Walmart, along with other retailers including Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Amazon and Target, paid some workers so little in 2018 that they needed to enroll in programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to make ends meet.
In 2021, Walmart raised wages for more than 500,000 associates by at least $1 per hour, pushing average hourly pay for those workers to $16.40. Earlier this year, Target said it intended to boost starting pay from $15 per hour to a range of between $15 and $24.
Supermarket pay is on the rise
Full-time work in retail can be elusive
Françoise Carré, research director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, noted that even as the retailing industry has evolved to reflect changes in society, obtaining reliable, full-time jobs can be challenging.
The expansion of hours at many retail locations over the years has put added pressure on retailers to assign workers to hours that might be inconvenient for them and put a spotlight on part-time work, she said. In addition, not only can landing full-time work in a grocery store or other retail location be hard, but people who secure it can often find themselves overworked or compelled to be available whenever a manager needs them, she said.
“Retailers use that pattern for a majority of their frontline workforce,” said Carré, who conducts research in collaboration with Tilly. “In other words, in order to get in to have access to a full-time job, you have these very long waystations of highly variable hours,” she said.
Kaat said that when he ascended to a management position at the Whole Foods store where he was assigned, he felt unrelenting pressure to dedicate himself to his job. “I was like, OK, so I’m supposed to work through my lunches [and] breaks are a non-existent thing,” he said. “You can move up … but it was extracting more and more value for not that much of a raise.”
Whole Foods — which is not unionized — also sometimes cut workers’ hours when new associates joined the staff, according to Kaat.
Leas said the store where he works routinely doesn’t have enough workers on hand, sometimes making it necessary for associates to take on extra duties and crimping their ability to serve customers. Stop & Shop has also moved away from cross-training new workers to handle essential tasks before assigning them to specific departments, compounding the challenges he faces, he said.
Leas, who oversees front-end operations in his store, noted that while he is supposed to open an additional checkout lane if lines at counters that are in operation grow too long, he often can’t do so because he doesn’t have enough workers. “We have nine registers, and if I can open four of them, that's a good day,” he said.
Helping workers chart their course
While some retailers may have developed a reputation for taking a hard-nosed stance in managing relations with workers, others in the industry employ a softer approach.
Bob LaBonne Jr., president and CEO of the four-store LaBonne’s Markets supermarket chain in Connecticut, said he personally strives to help people find roles in the company that reflect their interests and take into account their needs for time away from work.
LaBonne added that he wants to give workers the opportunity to build their skills on the job and even helps people who indicate interest in building careers outside of retail ultimately land positions in other fields. “I try to use my resources and connections to help them. If they're not going to be at LaBonne’s long-term, then what's your dream job? Because if you work hard for me, I'm going to be your biggest salesman,” he said.
Brandon Lucia, who joined LaBonne’s shortly after graduating from high school and now works full-time as a deli manager at a LaBonne’s store in Prospect, Connecticut, said he was drawn to the chance to explore his passion for food in an environment where he can be creative. Lucia added that he feels well-treated in the non-union environment where he works, noting that managers make a point of ensuring he does not work beyond his scheduled hours even though he is salaried.
Lucia, who oversees a team that includes teenagers as well as employees with decades of experience, said he makes a point of instilling in people he supervises the sense that their jobs are meaningful and offer a chance to explore new horizons. “I always tell them that this is a career,” he said. “People think that retail is always a dead-end job. But I can be an example of how it’s not.”
Jeff Wells contributed to this story.