UFCW Local 324 President Andrea Zinder, right, walked through a North Long Beach Food 4 Less informing employees of a petition for increased safety measures and hazard pay. Long Beach Councilman Rex Richardson, left, and then-Councilwoman-Elect Cindy Allen joined in the walk through. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

‘It was a shock’: Grocery workers, communities brace for impacts of Kroger store closures

For more than 12 years, Kellye Hines-Parks has worked at Food 4 Less in North Long Beach. On Monday, she was told her store would be closing in April and that her future at the company is in limbo.

“It was a shock,” Hines-Parks said. “I’m still shocked.”

Nearly 200 Kroger employees are facing layoffs or transfers following Monday’s announcement by Kroger Co. that it would close two Long Beach stores after the city mandated that large grocery companies pay workers an extra $4 an hour during the pandemic. The company has yet to make any announcements related to employee retention.

The two stores that will close on April 17 are Food 4 Less on South Street and Ralphs at the intersection of Los Coyotes Diagonal and Wardlow Road in East Long Beach.

Hines-Parks, a diabetic, worked through five months of the pandemic while pregnant. She gave birth in August and was back in the bakery department by December. She said it was “scary” going to work each day.

“We’re putting our lives out there to help other people get what they need to be OK,” she said, adding that she still supports the hero pay mandate but that she never expected a blowback of this magnitude.

Hines-Parks does not own a car, but has lived within walking distance of the South Street grocery store ever since she started the job. For years she had about a 30-minute walk to work but eventually moved within only a few minutes.

Whether transferred or laid off, Hines-Parks is facing challenges. If she is laid off, the search for work would be critical to keep her children fed. But even if she is transferred to another store, she could be facing much longer commutes, likely by one or more buses.

“I have to make it work because I have kids,” she said. “I will make it work but it’s going to be hard.”

Kroger officials on Tuesday did not respond to requests for comment.

On Monday, they said they would do everything they could to take care of employees but noted the move may result in layoffs. The company called the city’s “hero pay” mandate “misguided” and a governmental “overstep” that added insurmountable financial hardships to already struggling stores.

Impacts of the closures are not limited to employees of the doomed stores. The surrounding North Long Beach community, which has long been considered a food desert, depends on the grocery store. Many nearby residents, like Hines-Parks, do not own cars and often walk to the store to shop.

“This isn’t just a slap at the workers but it’s also a slap at the community,” said Andrea Zinder, president of UFCW Local 324, which represents 22,000 grocery workers in the region, including those at the soon-to-be-shuttered Long Beach stores.

Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents North Long Beach, said food insecurity is nothing new to his district but that the last five years have seen improvements with the introduction of two new grocery stores. Also, the area’s proximity to stores in other cities, such as WinCo Foods in Lakewood and Northgate Market in Paramount, helps.

Nevertheless, Richardson said his top priority is working with city departments and local nonprofits to establish a food security plan in the wake of the Kroger announcement.

On Monday, the first day of Black History Month, Kroger also announced a racial equity program, including $3 million in funding. Richardson lambasted the move.

“On the same day they announced that they’re closing a grocery store in a Black and Brown community,” Richardson said. “Because the community sided with the workers. It’s direct retaliation. It’s shameful.”

Zinder acknowledged that the community impacts surrounding the Ralphs closure may not be as drastic as those in the northern part of the city. East Long Beach is a more affluent area in which more residents own vehicles. Within a mile or less of the Ralphs location are multiple other grocery stores, including a Pavilions, Grocery Outlet, Stater Bros and an Amazon Fresh that is expected to open soon.

But lessened community impacts does not mean they are nonexistent, Zinder said. Many shoppers have stores of preference and losing that can be a burden, she said.

The impacts on employees are the same regardless of location, Zinder added. No matter the employee or location, being shuffled to a new store can be jarring, especially if it is outside the community they live. Zinder said employees who get transferred may not be able to receive the same number of hours or shifts on the days they have previously, two factors that may force some to seek other employment even if Kroger offers them another job.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, who represents the area where the Ralphs will be closed, said she was not fully surprised by Kroger’s decision but acknowledged the difficulties ahead.

“While I’m disappointed to hear of Ralphs … this has been signaled every few months for years,” Mungo said in a text to the Post. “I will work hand in hand with our Workforce Development programs to help Ralphs employees transition to other good paying jobs to ensure our residents who have worked hard and showed up for our neighbors during this extremely difficult time find other opportunities in the community.”

Zinder said the union is looking at all its options to assist its members. But one option that is off the table is working with the company itself, she said.

“Kroger is not interested in working with us,” Zinder said, adding that the union is even exploring legal options in response to what she calls a “vicious act of retaliation.”

In its closure announcement, Kroger said the two stores in question have been struggling and the city’s mandatory—and temporary—pay increase forced their hand.

But Zinder and Hines-Parks tell another story.

“Sales at both these stores increased 30% during the pandemic over the same period the previous year,” Zinder said. “So either they were always going to close these stores or they are sending a message to employees and all the other cities that are looking at similar [mandates].”

Hines-Parks said anytime she asked management about store sales, she was told they were doing well. In fact, during the first two quarters of 2020, Kroger’s profits nearly doubled, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The company reported $29.7 billion in sales during the third quarter, an 11.3% from the same quarter in 2019.

“I love Food 4 Less. But this seems unfair,” Hines-Parks said. “I wish we could find a better way other than closing the store. I just don’t understand.”