A toxic Kroger work environment is also a problem in Columbus
Two men

A Cincinnati area father whose son committed suicide after being bullied by his Kroger managers is suing the grocery giant for wrongful death. The case claims nothing was done to remedy a hostile and toxic work environment even when Kroger corporate and the local Kroger union were aware of his son’s pleas for help.

Evan Seyfried, who was 40, had worked for Kroger in Milford, Ohio for nearly two decades before taking his life in 2021. He had no prior history of mental illness, and, by all accounts, popular and well-liked by his co-workers.

But perhaps Evan’s popularity, and maybe even his politics, put him on the radar of two managers who would soon wage “a campaign of terror” against him. Many are not aware that Kroger moves managers from store to store every four months or so, and many Kroger workers believe this is part of corporate’s strategy to keep them in line.

Now Evan’s father, Ken Seyfried, is demanding accountability and “Justice for Evan”. He’s accusing the Cincinnati-based Kroger and the two managers as “driving an employee to death by suicide by creating disturbing, dangerous and deranged conditions.”

What connects the lawsuit to Columbus is how the Free Press recently heard from several Kroger full-time workers that a local Kroger worker either survived an attempted suicide or had planned to commit suicide in response to an unrelenting manager. The manager was quickly moved to another store. The Free Press could not confirm the story through Kroger corporate or the local United Food and Commercial (UFCW) 1059, which rarely answers questions from the media.

But as for Columbus, it’s not just a few store-level managers that Kroger workers are fed up with. Remember, they risked everything during the pandemic so the community could meet its needs. They are also seriously disgruntled with their union – UFCW 1059. Especially after UFCW leadership was condescending and even insulting to some members who voted to strike this past summer.

Unbelievable was how UFCW 1059 refused to authorize the strike even though a majority of members voted “yes.” The 12,000-plus Kroger members were forced to accept a contract many called “abysmal.” Over a dozen Kroger full-timers told the Free Press they believe UFCW 1059 had sold-out to Kroger years before.

Ken Seyfried recently gave an interview to the Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today. Evan’s dad believes Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen – a Trump confidant – is also to blame for his son’s tragic death. Ken Seyfried says McMullen, who took over as CEO in 2014, changed the work culture at Kroger. A culture change that’s given Kroger corporate and its shareholders billions in profits.   

“Back in 2014 and 2015, he began sharing with his mother and I how things were beginning to change at Kroger,” said Ken Seyfried. “More emphasis was being put on productivity. Getting more out of your people. Getting more out of your hours. Cutting hours. Being more efficient. Some of the store managers were starting to leave who were considered too soft on the people.”

As the years progressed, the pressures became worse for Evan, who helped run the dairy department, his father stated in the videotaped interview. And as more and more was asked of Evan, it became tougher and tougher for him to go into work. This is something the Free Press has heard repeatedly from Central Ohio Kroger workers, particularly since the onset of the pandemic.

The wrongful death suit alleges one of Evan’s managers mocked him in front of co-workers for wearing a mask. This same manager also had nicknamed him “Antifa” and encouraged Evan’s co-workers to do the same. The harassment continued outside of work. Evan was followed home, strange cars were parked outside his residence, and child porn was texted to his phone, contends the suit.

“He was in fear of his life and in fear of our lives. He thought we were at risk,” Ken Seyfried told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

No one needs reminding suicides in the US have reached startling levels. Ask any middle-aged adult, and they will tell you someone they knew took their own life. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the US, and rates since 1999 have increased by 30 percent in half of states.

But here in Ohio there’s legal precedent which is referred to as the “Suicide Rule.” It prevents legal blame being placed on a company, institution or even a person, for death caused by suicide. It’s a pro-Robber Barons law if there ever was one, and Ken Seyfried and his family have said their lawsuit is seeking to challenge the rule.

Also disturbing is how Evan’s union – UFCW 75, representing the Cincinnati area – responded to several grievances he had filed. According to the World Socialist Web Site, UFCW 75 sat on the grievances and didn’t act.

The Free Press has several friends who toil day after day at a Kroger cash register, in front of a frozen dairy case, or driving a forklift third shift in a Kroger warehouse. And not all Kroger managers are abusive tyrants, but some are.

Nonetheless, the pandemic proved the community is far more dependent on the grocery store worker than once perceived. Yet Kroger’s corporate leadership, board members, and large shareholders have made a killing off them during the pandemic – CEO McMullen, who made $18 million in 2021, just announced to shareholders of a $1.7 billion profit for 2021. Over the summer in Columbus, when strike fever was reaching a boiling point, some local Kroger workers discovered Kroger corporate has at least three private jets at their disposal, each worth $25 million.

On the flipside, in the summer of 2021, the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit from California, surveyed over 10,000 Kroger employees, and 63 percent said, “they didn’t earn enough monthly to cover basic expenses” and “36 percent worry about being evicted.”

Many of the workers who put food on our tables are dedicated to their job and especially their customers. But their fight for higher wages and greater respect has never seemed more passionate, especially here in Columbus. Kroger now rivals Walmart, which means a lot of hardworking people are deserving of far, far more respect – and that’s what Evan Seyfried’s legacy is about.

As one of our Kroger friends told us recently, “They need to treat us better or I’m looking elsewhere.”