Hazard pay survives for some frontline workers, but future uncertain

A Walmart employee wearing gloves and a mask lets a limited number of customers into a Tucker store Wednesday April 15, 2020. (Ben@BenGray.com for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A Walmart employee wearing gloves and a mask lets a limited number of customers into a Tucker store Wednesday April 15, 2020. (Ben@BenGray.com for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Shelf stockers, cashiers and other frontline workers at Kroger will see an end to fatter paychecks Saturday, as the food retailer cancels hazard pay premiums.

But many employers are still weighing whether to roll back or implement special pay for frontline workers who continue to risk exposure to the coronavirus as more businesses reopen and services resume amid the pandemic.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who pushed for more pay for emergency and other workers, said he is not yet considering cuts.

“We are not there yet. Not in DeKalb,” Thurmond said. “Our cases are still increasing and people are still dying.”

He’ll make that decision by considering data such as the number of cases, number of deaths or when workers in other fields are being called back to work, he said.

Companies began boosting pay and benefits in March to reward workers as the number of coronavirus cases and deaths surged and governments implemented shelter-in-place orders. The plans were as varied as the companies, ranging from a one-off bonus to temporary hourly raises. Companies also enhanced benefits such as paid time off and more medical benefits.

About a quarter of U.S. employers surveyed by human resources consulting company Mercer indicated they are offering extra pay for some employees during the pandemic. That percentage is likely to gradually rise as more retailers open back up and companies reestablish onsite work, according to Mary Ann Sardone, a company talent solutions leader.

The premium pay increases often are in the range of 10% to 20%, according to Mercer.

Sardone said some employers may phase out the extra pay in July, when a federal $600-a-week boost in unemployment benefits is expected to expire. The federal supplement is just one reason why employers faced pressure to increase pay for workers wary of returning to job sites, she added.

A variety of Atlanta-based companies haven’t offered hazard pay, including UPS and Delta Air Lines. Georgia Power said it isn’t offering extra pandemic-related pay and that there are inherent higher risks in the utility industry that already are factored into regular pay of its employees.

Many companies asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about continuing hazard pay said they are taking a wait-and-see approach.

That includes Home Depot, which is paying an extra $100 a week to full time workers and $50 to part-timers. It is paying double for overtime and provided a range of time-off benefits good until the end of the year.

Its rival, Lowe’s, paid bonuses of $300 to full-time workers and $150 for part-timers March 31 and will pay another May 22. It also gave a $2 hourly wage increase to line workers for hours worked in April, according to a spokeswoman, who didn’t respond to a reporter’s question if the hourly increase extended into May.

Target and Atlanta-based RaceTrac said they are extending hourly wage increases of $2 and $3, respectively, through May.

Many employers have resisted paying hazard pay for employees who can’t work from the safety of their home, triggering calls for action.

Last month, Democrats in the U.S. Senate proposed a "Heroes Fund" that would add about $13 an hour to the pay of certain essential workers. More recently,  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi included worker premium pay as part of a proposal for another round of economic stimulus. And Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called for "Patriot Pay," of as much as $12 an hour extra for employees in essential industries deemed eligible. Employers could be refunded for up to three quarters of the extra pay, via a payroll tax credit.

Some major Atlanta-based companies with frontline workers were short on specifics when contacted by the AJC. Chick-fil-A said decisions are left to individual operators. Waffle House didn't disclose any specific pay increase. Early on it pushed hourly pay rate cuts for some staff.

Coca-Cola said its supply chain and manufacturing employees continue to receive a temporary “special circumstances pay increase” and that most of its bottlers, which are independent companies, have added their own programs. A company spokeswoman declined to share details on the size of the increases.

A Publix spokeswoman said it gave permanent pay increases, accelerated merit pay reviews and offered recognition pay. She didn’t respond when asked to disclose the average increase.

Rival Kroger, whose workers average about $15 an hour, said in a letter to employees that it is letting its $2-an-hour hazard pay bonus lapse because the country is “beginning to see a return to normal.”

Steve Lomax, president of United Food & Commercial Workers union, Local 1996, said the situation is “anything but normal.” As more states reopen their economies and more shoppers return to grocery stores, he said Kroger workers will face increased risk of COVID-19 exposure.

A Kroger spokesman said the company is committed to employee safety and is having “ongoing discussions” with UFCW, which represents Kroger workers.

It’s unclear how much longer other major employers’ hazard pay programs will continue.

Walmart gave bonuses in March and April of $300 to full-time and $150 to part-time workers.

CVS gave single bonuses of $150 to $500 to pharmacists, other health-care workers, store managers and associates. Walgreen doled out bonuses of of $300 for full-time and $150 for hourly workers in April.

Synovus, the largest bank based in Georgia, continues to pay some employees $50 extra per day worked. Regional banking giant Truist gave $1,200 bonuses in April to all workers making less than $100,000 annually and promised additional pay for frontline workers, but didn’t publicly disclose how much.