The largest grocery chain in the U.S. recently pulled its paid COVID-19 leave for employees not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus in a move designed to encourage inoculations.

As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, Kroger will no longer provide two weeks of paid emergency leave for unvaccinated employees who contract COVID-19 or those placed under mandatory quarantine, unless local jurisdictions require otherwise. Employees under Kroger’s health insurance will also be charged a $50 per month surcharge for remaining unvaccinated. Both policies are effective Jan. 1.

While Kroger may have public health in mind, it is making this move on precarious footing with some employees over, among other things, pandemic-related pay. Workers at Kroger subsidiaries Fred Meyer and QFC went on strike last week, arguing that the chain has disregarded workers’ rights, denied them respect and failed to negotiate a fair contract. Workers ended the walkout after one day and are set to vote on a settlement worked out between their union and management that calls for $36 million in additional funding to go towards worker pay.

On Friday, a federal appeals court panel allowed President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision. The order mandates that all companies with more than 100 employees have every worker either vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19 by Jan. 4.

“OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has demonstrated the pervasive danger that COVID-19 poses to workers — unvaccinated workers in particular — in their workplaces,” the ruling said.

The states of Louisiana, Texas, Utah, South Carolina and Mississippi have joined with businesses as well as religious and advocacy organizations to file for a permanent injunction against the mandate.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) in early November joined a handful of industry groups in a lawsuit seeking to postpone the government’s mandate on vaccination and testing requirements. NRF officials argued the mandate was too burdensome during peak selling season amid the tight labor market.

NRF’s SVP of government relations David French on Friday said the organization is considering other legal options while calling the rule “infeasible for employers to implement during the critical holiday season.”

The ruling comes as the highly-contagious Omicron variant gains steam in the U.S.


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