King Soopers strike: Workers describe life at Colorado grocery giant
Talk to the men and women who walked the King Soopers picket lines and you’d hear why they were out there, in the cold and freezing rain, striking for a better life.
They started as high school kids looking for some extra cash to pay for that senior trip. Or they heard about the decent wages and upward mobility. Others lost their jobs during the pandemic and desperately needed work.
They stay because they’re scared to lose insurance for their children. Or they don’t want to let down their co-workers they view more as family.
These are the workers of King Soopers. More than 8,000 of them — encompassing 68 stores across metro Denver — walked off the job on Jan. 12, striking for livable wages, better benefits and more security at their stores.
Friday morning, on the 10th day of a walkout that included bitter public posturing and a temporary restraining order, the two sides announced they had reached a tentative agreement to end the labor dispute and bring union workers back into stores.
Details of the agreement were not immediately released, but the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, Kim Cordova, said in a statement that the agreement “addresses the company’s unfair labor practices and ensures that our members will receive the respect, pay and protection they warrant.”
Joe Kelley, president of King Soopers and City Market, said in a statement that the deal would “put more money in our associates’ paychecks and secures health care and pension plans.”
Throughout the strike, the union argued that its workers were being left behind as Colorado’s rising cost of living far outpaced wages, while the company said the union was rejecting millions in wage increases.
A recent Economic Roundtable report, titled “Hungry at the Table,” found more than three-quarters of workers at grocery stores owned by Kroger — the parent company that owns King Soopers and City Market stores in Colorado — are food insecure, with a rate seven times greater than the national average.
“The data demonstrate that workers’ financial distress, housing insecurity and food insecurity are not resulting from their personal failures but rather, from Kroger’s companywide policies for cutting costs and increasing profits,” the report’s authors noted.
Here are some of King Soopers workers’ stories:
“You have have to take action”
Single mother Brandy Ruiz sees her 16-year-old son working diligently at school. He gets good grades, studies hard and has college in his sights.
She wants to be able to pay for that schooling, to reward him for his strong work ethic — but it’s hard.
“I just don’t have the finances,” Ruiz 38, said Wednesday outside the King Soopers on Speer Boulevard in Denver, where she’s worked for six years. “It hurts.”
Ruiz hasn’t gotten a raise from the grocery store chain in four years, she says. Meanwhile, her son, now 6 feet tall, constantly needs new clothes and eats like a full family. She knows he needs braces but she can’t afford them right now.
The 38-year-old has thought about getting a second job to make ends meet. But she believes in commitment, in progressing and growing with a company.
“It feels a bit unfair,” Ruiz said as she tried to stay warm on the sidewalk, a sign around her neck pleading with customers not to shop at King Soopers. “I’ve shown my half; I’m just looking for a little incentive from their half.”
Over the past few weeks, she’s had to explain to her son and nieces and nephews why she was standing outside her workplace with a sign. Ruiz pointed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday as a fitting example.
“When you believe in something big,” Ruiz said, “you have to take action.”
“Colorado is very exepensive”
Every Friday night, Josie Penley’s 9-year-old grows excited.
It’s ramen night.
A lot of nights have turned into ramen nights in Penley’s house, as the single mother of two tries to make the numbers work every month on $20 an hour.
When the 30-year-old started at King Soopers a dozen years ago, the $9.14 an hour wasn’t bad. But that’s when rent cost $600 a month, not the $1,150 she pays now, and before she had two other mouths to feed.
“I’m not asking for $30 an hour,” she said Wednesday outside the Speer Boulevard store. “But Colorado is very expensive.”
Her boyfriend moved in after three months — more out of financial necessity than anything, Penley said. She relies heavily on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides food and health care referrals to low-income families with young kids.
“I make too much for food stamps,” Penley said, “but not enough to live.”
She sticks with the job because she feels she can’t just leave the insurance benefits, and she recently got sick with COVID-19. So did most of the deli staff, Penley said. Her job in optimum wellness requires her to touch everything the customers touch.
“We want and deserve hazard pay,” Penley said.
“Everybody deserves a livable wage”
Michelle Kissinger’s day begins at 4 a.m., hurrying to make her 5 a.m. shift at the King Soopers store just east of Green Mountain Park in Lakewood.
The 52-year-old mother and grandmother works a full shift as a pick-up shopper, then embarks on her second job, driving for Door Dash food delivery. After 12 hours of work, she hurries home to make her daughter dinner, then does it all again the next day.
“My daughter told me, ‘You love this job more than you love me,’” Kissinger said as frozen rain blew sideways Wednesday morning while she picketed outside the Lakewood grocery store. “That just about broke my heart.”
She yearns to work a 40-hour week, but needs the second job to actually buy food and clothes for her daughter.
Kissinger used to sing and dance at work, a bright and cheery presence among staff. But as workers leave, the remaining staff is being worked ragged, she said. COVID got her and has run through many of her co-workers.
“Everybody deserves a livable wage,” Kissing said, donning her union sign. “Nobody should fear not being able to feed their families.”
“Cost of living keeps going up”
When Moses Carrasco’s kids were born, he knew he needed good benefits. So he started working at King Soopers — a place he heard had decent pay and the chance at upward mobility.
Within six months, he earned a promotion and took home $16.49 per hour.
That was 14 years ago. Now Carrasco, 43 with grown kids, is making just $3.30 more per hour than he did when he first started — not even enough to keep up with inflation. And everything else about the job is deteriorating, he said.
“The benefits keep getting worse, cost of living keeps going up and raises don’t follow suit,” Carrasco said outside the Wheat Ridge grocery store at 38th Street and Sheridan Boulevard.
As more and more workers leave for better-paying jobs, he said, employees are being asked to do more with less. Six year ago, the deli employed 16 people, Carrasco said. Now it’s down to six.
He worries about employee safety, from COVID precautions and operating heavy machinery to robberies.
“There’s security now that we’re on strike,” he said. “But not when we asked for it.”
“Only job I’ve ever known”
Candace Arellano just wanted to pay for her senior class trip. That’s how she started at King Soopers 17 years ago.
“I got into management and stayed for the money,” the 34-year-old said Wednesday outside the Wheat Ridge grocery store.
But $17 an hour as a high schooler is only $19.50 today — and now she has three children. Four years ago, Arellano was forced to sell her house in Arvada and move into a tiny apartment with her kids because the mortgage payments grew impossible.
“We have to be mindful of how many meals we can make with $20,” Arellano said. That means her children are getting used to a lot of rice, beans and potatoes.
She’s thought about other jobs, but has stayed in her King Soopers’ bookkeeper role because it allows for a flexible schedule so she can take care of her young kids. Paying for day care is simply not an option.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever known,” Arellano said. “It’s very weird and scary.”
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