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The labor union that represents Kroger grocery stores is still discussing the grocery giant’s decision to end paid sick leave for unvaccinated, COVID-19-positive employees.

Kroger announced earlier this week that unvaccinated employees will no longer be eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave. The paid leave policy has its roots in the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic last year, when vaccines were not available. The change takes effect Jan. 1.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the policy switch. Kroger confirmed it Tuesday.

“We’re still looking into this,” said Jonathan Williams, communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, headquartered in Landover, Maryland. “It’s a concern any time an employer rolls back sick leave, no matter what the disease, COVID, flu, whatever. A lack of sick leave incentivizes people to go to work sick.”

Williams’ local represents workers in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. and parts of a few other states.

Few places are more exposure-sensitive than a grocery store, Williams said, with frequent customer proximity and the necessity of working in a contained space.

Kroger management and employees are prevented by company policy from speaking to media. Customers in the parking lot of Kroger’s West Side store offered their thoughts on the matter Wednesday afternoon.

Josh Shampton, 27, of Charleston, said employees need the sick leave, for the principal reason of protecting customers.

“You’ve got to have sick leave at this point in time,” Shampton said. “The company has to be held accountable if they don’t let their employees go home. People are dying. People have families and I know people who have died.”

Becky Bays, 67, is in town from northern Virginia, visiting family for the holidays.

“I support the science,” said Bays, still masked as she pushed a cart to her car. “My background is in science.”

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Bays said she may have some pause if the employee has a documented medical reason or a sincere religious belief.

“Like if they’re very devout and their religion prohibits something from being injected into their bodies,” she said. Given that, Bays said she was surprised that more customers weren’t masked inside the store. “There are a lot more people masked in northern Virginia.”

According to the Associated Press, the company will begin charging a $50 monthly fee to unvaccinated salaried workers and managers enrolled in a company health care plan. That fee does not apply to unionized workers and non-union hourly workers.

Kroger has nearly 500,000 employees in the United States. Sixty-six percent belong to a union. The company would not say what percentage of its employees are vaccinated.

The White House says it is not backing Kroger’s specific revocation of sick leave or the $50 monthly fee. President Joe Biden backs a vaccine mandate at large companies, but that plan faces legal hurdles.

Kroger says it will still offer earned time off for sick employees and the ability to apply for unpaid leave. A “special” leave will only apply to vaccinated workers. In recent months, it has become clear that vaccinated people may contract the virus but typically have much less severe outcomes.

“We live by the same rules at my work,” said one masked woman in medical garb, who asked not to be identified. “That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Williams said his union fully supports every member becoming fully vaccinated as the best way to prevent the spread of COVID.

“But eliminating sick leave may or may not have the effect intended,” Williams said. “The reason is it’s so necessary to prevent the perverse incentivization of people coming to work sick.”

Williams said the union may have a statement on the matter later. He said top union officials are presently busy with end-of-year meetings.

Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone@hdmediallc.com.

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