Kroger ad images

Low wages and being spied on by management are arguably fueling the "Great Resignation"

At a Walmart on Columbus’ far westside there are 200 job openings, according to frontline workers there.

On a recent Friday afternoon at an eastside Kroger, only three unautomated checkout lines were open, and its state-controlled liquor store shut its doors at 3:30 pm for lack of an employee to staff it.

Giant Eagle, which gobbled up Big Bear with hardly an afterthought for its long-time employees, is now begging for workers – yet still offering only $11-an-hour (so much for being “essential”). 

Central Ohio’s fast-food workers, surviving on unlivable wages and treated poorly by demanding suburban soccer moms, might be sporting the biggest of Cheshire Cat smiles. Columbus’s own White Castle, on street placards, is screaming they’re paying $14-an-hour, letting everyone know fast-food workers are in huge demand, as franchise owners sweat bullets over whether they can afford that second or even third country club membership.

The overworked, the underpaid, and those who face the greatest risk from COVID-19 may finally get the pay and respect they deserve. Indeed, Walmarts in Columbus have boosted pay to nearly $15-an-hour.

Clearly that wage is still not enough to work at Walmart, where some have epically quit, their instore intercom rants going viral.

But for those who can’t say “Capitalism sucks and I’ve had enough!” and join the “Great Resignation,” are sign-on bonuses and slightly higher wages signaling a new reality for the working class?

Michael Shields, prolific labor researcher for the non-profit thinktank Policy Matters Ohio, believes “any new bargaining power workers have in this recovery is overstated and likely to be short lived.”

“Long term, wages for Ohio’s lowest paid have gone way down,” he told the Free Press. “This is the result of deliberate policy decisions that have helped companies push wages down for decades. The market is not going to fix it.”

In the aftermath of the pandemic will the electorate finally act?

“Ultimately, people go to work to earn a living, and I think ensuring that everyone is paid a wage that covers the basics will require policy change. My recommendation is to pass a $15 minimum wage,” he said.

In a recent study Shields wrote, “We can’t return to normal: Normal got us here, where the job market languishes as the stock market surges, and where those least resourced to withstand the impacts of COVID-19 are the most exposed and bear the greatest losses.”

Shield’s study, State of Working Ohio 2021, offered these key findings, among many others:

ØCOVID-19 reversed decades of progress made by Ohio women in narrowing the wage gap and the gap in employment and workforce participation. And while men and women are equally likely to work essential jobs, women work more of the lowest-paid and highest-exposure jobs.

ØYoung people are often disproportionately harmed by economic downturns, but this recession has hit young workers even harder because they were clustered in the sectors of the economy most affected.

ØMany Ohioans left the workforce altogether. Ohio’s Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) reached its lowest level on record by 2020, with 61.8% of Ohioans working or seeking work. As of July 2021, Ohio’s civilian labor force, which includes those working and actively seeking work, was 5,604,000. That meant 295,000 more Ohioans were out of the workforce, and 317,000 fewer were working, compared with pre-COVID levels.

Hardcore right-wingers on local radio laugh and degrade on the unemployed. But the reality is the current monthly total is relatively low compared to the spring and summer of 2020 – just 58,000 as of September.

The Free Press used to cover the OUR Walmart movement where workers would strike on Black Friday. That movement has fizzled out, and while it was about higher pay, it was also seeking “respect” from much higher-paid management who treat front-line workers like second-class citizens.

And this is arguably fueling the “Great Resignation” – rejecting the lack of respect grocery store and fast-food workers receive from their own management.

Consider Cincinnati-based Kroger, which has become the world’s largest grocery store chain, reaping well-over $100 billion in revenue for 2020 and also paying $534 million in dividends to shareholders who didn’t lift a finger for Kroger during the pandemic.

Kroger in commercials loves to ballyhoo their “Secret Shoppers,” who apparently are undercover to make sure produce is fresh. Local Kroger employees believe these so-called “Secret Shoppers,” along with an arsenal of in-store cameras, are also spying on front-line workers.

A Kroger cashier who works on the far southside told the Free Press that any time they make the slightest of mistakes, a Kroger manager or loss-prevention specialist magically appears.

“Anytime anything happens they go to the cameras and randomly the loss prevention guy shows up,” said the employee who asked to remain anonymous.

Besides a higher wage, perhaps our electorate should craft legislation outlawing huge corporations from spying on their front-line workers who risked their lives making sure the community had toilet paper and fresh vegetables.

“More than a year into the health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19, it is now possible to describe how the pandemic has reshaped the lives of Ohioans to date, anticipate its long-term consequences, and craft policy to ensure that all Ohioans who avoided or survived COVID-19 can emerge from the crisis stronger than before,” wrote Shields in State of Working Ohio 2021.