The affects of the coronavirus pandemic have been seen across many sectors of the economy in the last few months. From oil prices to travel to the stock market, it’s hard to name a part of the economy that hasn’t been hit.
But maybe the most stark representations of the havoc COVID-19 is wreaking are the empty grocery store aisles across the country. Americans are hoarding food and toiletries, despite there being no signs of disruption in the supply chain.
We wanted to find out what’s going on in grocery stores from someone who’d know: Rodney McMullen, CEO of the supermarket chain Kroger, which has many brands including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter and Ralphs. Kroger is the third largest retail company in the world and the biggest supermarket chain in America.
David Brancaccio: So you’re going to be able to keep the food coming into your stores?
Rodney McMullen: Absolutely. You know, our teams are just doing an amazing job. And one of the things that we ask everybody is, don’t panic. That’s true for all the food retailers. There’s plenty of food in the supply chain. And every night we have trucks coming to our stores and our teams are restocking overnight and making sure we have the products that we have for our customers.
Brancaccio: That is what people want to hear. That there is plenty of food in the supply chain. So, we don’t have actual shortages?
McMullen: No, I mean, the key is for people not to hoard. And, you know, what we ask our customers is, buy what you need, but no need to go and hoard because cows are still producing milk and the farmers are still growing products and it’s still flowing across the country.
Brancaccio: Now, Kroger is trying to hire more people. Why and what for, Mr. McMullen?
McMullen: If you look at the change in our volume, as restaurants and other things have closed, those customers are coming to our stores. So the volume has increased. And, right now, we have over 10,000 [job] openings. Over the last week, we’ve hired over 2,000 people. We’re partnering with different hotels and restaurants and other chains, trying to accelerate our hiring process. And we’re having great luck bringing people on and it’s high-talented people, and it’s really helping us continue to meet the demands and expectations of our customers.
Brancaccio: I’m just trying to understand why you would need more people. Just the surge in demand requires more hands on deck?
McMullen: Yes. The the surge in demand. And, you know, one of the things that we’re trying to do is to be able to let our people have some time off, to be able to refresh. And by having more associates, that allows the existing ones to have a day off [and] be able to work some normal hours. Because, obviously, today it’s a high-stress environment.
Brancaccio: There has been controversy over sick leave at your stores. The company just started offering, what, two weeks pay for people who test positive for coronavirus or who might have to be quarantined? Is that how it works?
McMullen: What we’ve put [into place] is an emergency sick leave plan. And if somebody tests positive for COVID-19, they would be under sick leave. If they’re under quarantine, then it’s the 14 days. Over the years, what we always do is listen to our associates and understand what’s important to them from an overall benefits package. And our average hourly pay is over $15 an hour. If you look at benefits, it’s over $20 an hour. And we also have an incredible program we call “Feed Your Future” where we help people go to college. And we have thousands of people enrolled in that. So for us, our design, we look at it every single year. It really is a reflection of what our associates tell us is important.
Brancaccio: One of the challenges here is that testing for coronavirus is still hard to come by. Do you worry your employees who feel like, maybe they’re getting sick, but can’t prove it with a test yet, are going to come into work anyway?
McMullen: No. We ask our associates, if you are feeling ill at all, please do not come to work. Do not take a chance. Reach out immediately to your medical provider and let them know your symptoms and go from there. But absolutely not, we do not want or do not expect somebody to come in if they’re feeling ill at all. And that would be the same all the time. Obviously, now we’re being more aggressive in reinforcing that.
Brancaccio: Why not just offer a set number of days that you’ll pay if people have to call in sick for any reason? I mean, lots of companies do that, even many nonprofits.
McMullen: Well, you know, as I said before, if you look at our overall benefit package, it really is a reflection of what people tell us is important. We have a tremendous number of labor contracts across the country. Each contract is negotiated separately. And it really is a reflection of what the unions hear from their members in that negotiation process. And if you look at sick leave, there would be a wide variance of what is actually offered across the company based on different contracts.
Brancaccio: A suggestion would be to ask that question again, given the new context of coronavirus. Maybe the associates, your workers, might embrace paid sick leave [or] place a higher priority on it now.
McMullen: It is always an ongoing discussion with our union partners. So you know, that’s something that will be part of the conversation on a daily basis as we go forward.
Brancaccio: Now briefly, what happened with these $25 gift cards? The narrative formed that it was $25 in lieu of sick leave at Kroger stores. What’s your take?
McMullen: Well, it was just a small token of our appreciation. Obviously, a lot of people are working incredibly hard. And it was just a small thank you to all of our teams in terms of working, really being there for customers and for each other and for the communities. And, obviously, we serve an incredibly important component to every community. And it was just a small token of our appreciation.