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Kroger strips paid emergency leave, jacks up health insurance premiums for unvaccinated employees

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Kroger, the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, announced significant policy changes this week aimed at compelling employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

What are the details?

Starting next year, the Cincinnati-based company will no longer provide two weeks of paid emergency leave to unvaccinated employees who become infected with COVID-19, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday after viewing a company memo.

The paper noted that Kroger also plans to add a $50 monthly surcharge to company health plans for salaried nonunion employees who are unvaccinated. Both policies are set to take effect on Jan. 1, the Journal said.

According to the Associated Press, in an email to employees, Kroger leadership said the company would still offer "various leave options for employees who contract the virus, including earned paid time off and the ability to apply for unpaid leave," but that paid "special" leave would now only be available to fully vaccinated employees.

What else?

Kroger, which employs nearly 500,000 people who interact with up to 9 million customers every day, will reportedly continue offering a $100 reward to employees who get the shot.

The company's policy changes fall short of a vaccine mandate. Rather, they aim to pressure employees to get vaccinated by making life more difficult for those who choose not to do so. Or in this case — more expensive.

"Kroger is not the first company to steer clear of an outright mandate, instead trying to coerce employees through company-sponsored health plans," the AP reported.

The changes also come as the fate of President Biden's sweeping vaccine mandate for medium to large U.S.companies remains uncertain. The directive, which would affect more than 100 million Americans, has faced both legal and political challenges since its announcement and is currently held in suspension by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration pending court orders.

Anything else?

A Kroger spokesperson reportedly told the Journal that the changes were enacted in order to encourage safe behaviors as the country heads into the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

But critics of the policy say that stripping paid leave for unvaccinated employees is risky at a time when the country is already dealing with a labor shortage. Furthermore, the policy may unintentionally encourage hourly workers who desperately need the income to come to work even if they're sick with the virus.

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