(AP) – Kroger, the country’s biggest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated workers as big employers attempt to compel more of their workforce to become vaccinated with cases of COVID-19 again rising.
Unvaccinated workers will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected, a company spokesperson confirmed Tuesday. That policy was put into place last year when vaccines were unavailable.
The Cincinnati company confirmed changes in benefits first reported by The Wall Street Journal. The change is effective Jan. 1.
The company said it will also begin charging a $50 monthly fee to unvaccinated salaried workers and managers who are enrolled in a company health care plan. Unionized workers and non-union hourly workers won’t be charged that fee.
Kroger has nearly 500,000 employees in the U.S.; 66% belong to a union. The company won’t say what percent of its workers are vaccinated.
Kroger said it will still offer various leave options for employees who contract the virus, including earned paid time off and the ability to apply for unpaid leave. What Kroger called a “special” leave will only remain available to fully vaccinated associates.
Early last year Kroger implemented emergency leave that allowed paid time off for any worker diagnosed with COVID-19. All employees were eligible to receive their standard pay for up to 14 days.
As Kroger modifies some of its policies, the company said that it will continue to encourage workers to get vaccinated with $100 payments given to all fully vaccinated employees.
Kroger employees interact with as many as 9 million customers daily. Asked whether the new policy might encourage some employees to come to work even if they’re sick, a Kroger spokesperson said the company continues to implement enhanced cleaning and physical distancing and requires employees to wear masks in all of its stores and offices, regardless of vaccination status.
While President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate is facing legal opposition, many companies are still trying to get as many of their employees vaccinated as possible. It is legal for businesses to require the vaccines, and they could fire employees who don’t comply. In other cases, workers might be required to wear masks or get regular tests for the virus. Companies are also allowed to withhold perks or charge extra for health insurance for those workers who refuse shots.
Kroger is not the first company to steer clear of an outright mandate, instead trying to coerce employees through company-sponsored health plans.
Delta Airlines announced it August that it would charge employees on the company health plan $200 a month if they fail to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The airline also said at that time that it would stop extending pay protection to unvaccinated workers who contract COVID-19 on Sept. 30, and would require unvaccinated workers to be tested weekly beginning Sept. 12, although Delta will cover the cost. Unvaccinated employees also have to wear masks in all indoor company settings.