Why stores are saying “hero bonus” instead of “hazard pay”

Janet Nguyen May 22, 2020
A supermarket employee stands behind a cash register with a superhero cloak during quarantine. Anna Lukina/Getty Images

Why stores are saying “hero bonus” instead of “hazard pay”

Janet Nguyen May 22, 2020
A supermarket employee stands behind a cash register with a superhero cloak during quarantine. Anna Lukina/Getty Images

They may be giving out “hazard pay,” but they’re not calling it that.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, major companies have refrained from using that label, which is typically used to describe extra pay for performing hazardous work or work involving physical hardship.

Kroger, country’s biggest supermarket chain, has been paying workers a $2-an-hour “hero bonus,” which ends Saturday. In its place, the company has created a “thank you pay” program that will grant $400 to qualified full-time associates and $200 to qualified part-time associates. It’s a plan that also applies to the Kroger subsidiaries Fred Meyer and Ralphs. Meanwhile, McDonald’s and Albertsons are granting workers what they call “appreciation pay.”

The term “hero” and other expressions of gratitude have seeped into the corporate vernacular as companies brand their way through the crisis — from the way they describe extra pay to the uniforms they’re distributing to workers. Whole Foods, for example, is giving employees shirts that say “hero” on the front and “hard core” on the back.  

Rodney McMullen, the chairman and CEO of Kroger, said last month that “the true heroes in this story are our associates, and we want to provide them with additional resources and support to help them continue their remarkable effort.” 

What major employers are paying extra:

  • Kroger, Fred Meyer and Ralphs: $2 an hour until May 23, and one-time payments of $400 for full-timers $200 for part-timers
  • Target: $2 an hour until July 4
  • Amazon: $2 an hour until May 31
  • Smart & Final: $2.25 an hour until at least end of May
  • Albertsons/Safeway: $2 an hour until May 30
  • McDonald’s: Bonuses equal to 10% of earned pay in May

But these phrases of gratitude have received criticism from some workers, who are now starting to see their additional pay end.

While all 50 states are starting to reopen in some form, grocery workers say they still face risks by going to work. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers — including those at grocery chains such as Ralphs and Albertsons — recently stated that at least 68 grocery workers have died and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed to the coronavirus. 

During a press conference hosted by the UFCW, Raquel Salorio, a sales manager from Ralphs, described how her store asked workers to dress up as heroes one day.

“We’re not heroes. We’re far from heroes. I don’t have a cape,” she said.

She was happy she was off that day.

In The Atlantic, grocery store worker Karleigh Frisbie Brogan wrote how the word “hero” is “a pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something — money, goods, a clean conscience — from my jeopardization.”

McDonald’s, Albertsons and Kroger did not respond to requests for comment on how they chose the labels for additional employee pay.

Dawn Lerman, a professor of marketing and executive director of the Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham University, explained that companies likely chose the term “hero bonus” because “positive words and positive emotions tend to create perceptions of low risk.”

“They would rather call it that rather than hazard pay because it gives customers greater confidence in that retailer and increases the likelihood that customers will still patronize that retailer,” she said.

Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, also said that companies want to be able to change, or not change, policies at their discretion.

“If you’re giving somebody hazard pay, and then you stop giving that to them, and that hazard is still there — that looks bad,” she noted. “Part of it is just retaining the flexibility to only do it once or to do it twice, or to do it as many times as you want and be able to stop anytime without having to say why you’re changing your approach.”

Tippett added that she thinks these companies are doing it largely for nonlegal reasons, although if they do call it hazard pay, it’s a concession to the idea that the job is hazardous.

“So if there is litigation, that’s a word they can point to,” Tippett said.

Deborah Berkowitz, the National Employment Law Project’s worker health and safety program director, pointed out another issue with the semantics of “hazard pay.”

“It can be misinterpreted to mean that companies don’t have to protect workers from COVID-19 as long as they pay them more,” Berkowitz said in an email. “It’s a term used prior to the [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] law in 1970, when employers didn’t have the responsibility to provide safety conditions to workers.” 

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