Kroger’s flu furloughs to end after employee healthcare costs run into millions

Thousands of workers at Kroger supermarkets and its Harris Teeter, Fry’s and Fred Meyer chains in North Carolina and Virginia will have to earn $15 an hour or be offered employment elsewhere when they leave on an unpaid furlough during the 2018 flu season, Kroger announced Friday.

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“With the flu on the rise, we’re offering some options to ensure we have associates who are healthy and available to work,” said Melissa Miller, the company’s vice-president of human resources. “They don’t have to be paid and therefore, they won’t have benefits.”

The furloughs at 27 Kroger stores and three Harris Teeter locations were announced last week when the company told employees it would close all 40 of its Raleigh-area stores from 13 December to 9 January. Workers were provided a list of alternate locations that offered benefits. A Kroger spokesman said more are on the way.

Kroger’s store closures included one in Wylie, where 192 workers were made to work at least 60 hours a week, including on holidays, without pay, until the store reopened in February, or receive health insurance coverage from the rest of the company. The stores have been closed since 31 March.

Thousands of workers who remain on furlough are not being offered health insurance benefits and are, instead, taking employment breaks, Miller said.

The employee furloughs were first reported by Raleigh TV station WTVD.

WLNC reported earlier this month that one such furlough – at a Kroger in Wilson County – required an employee to pay more than $4,300 to cover the cost of healthcare insurance and more than $3,600 in unemployment benefits.

The store opened on 28 March, but ended its furlough plan less than two weeks later when it set up a new plan and returned to working normal hours, its owner, LandShark LLC, said in a statement.

The new plan will cost LandShark an additional $1.1m, mostly in new HR-related benefits such as health coverage, according to its latest financial filing.

Kroger is the nation’s largest supermarket chain, based on 2017 sales of $250bn.

In 2016, the Atlanta-based grocer announced another round of employee furloughs for flu-influenza season that, this time, affected just two Harris Teeter stores. In one of those stores, in Durham, workers will not receive any compensation. In the other, in Greensboro, workers will receive some compensation for missed work and $100 worth of gift cards.

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