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Hiring for Grocery Stores: Harnessing Labor Challenges to Reach More Union Members

By Jackie Lam | Feb 10, 2020

The grocery and supermarket industry has had its share of labor challenges. In recent years, supermarket chains and independent grocers alike in the U.S. have struggled with recruitment, retention, training and diversity.

The sources of these challenges include employees' concerns about working conditions, wages, benefits and opportunities for professional growth. Here's how grocery workers' unions can overcome obstacles to hiring for grocery stores and recruit more members.

Livable Wages and Robust Benefits

As evidenced by the strike involving 46,000 unionized grocery employees in California in June of 2019, grocery workers' unions can negotiate for living wages for its members. On average, grocery cashiers in the U.S. earn a median wage of $10.78 — only about half the median wage among full-time workers in the nation.

Offering a competitive wage could make hiring for grocery stores easier, saving on recruitment and onboarding costs in the process. What's more, it could decrease turnover and ultimately reduce overall labor costs.

For instance, take a closer look at employee turnover. A 2017 survey found that the turnover rate among independent grocers alone was 48.17% for part-time workers and 17.1% for full-timers. Coupled with a drop in the U.S. unemployment rate, a turnover rate that high can translate to higher labor costs for grocery store owners — at one estimate, the average cost of turnover per store is $67,200.

Though offering benefits can initially raise labor costs, it can likewise help grocers save money in the long run. Employees consistently rank health care as the most important benefit.

As a union, consider negotiating on behalf of members for expanded and protected health care, not only full-time staff but for part-time employees as well. Opportunities within the growing gig economy may make hires reluctant to take on a full-time position. Since part-timers have the highest turnover rate among grocery workers, offering these workers health care benefits could improve retention where it's most sorely needed.

Improved Working Conditions

The recent strikes in New England and California reveal out how better working conditions can help grocers attract long-term employees. Members in the industry want to know that they work in a safe environment that provides lunch breaks, secure scheduling, premium pay during holidays and annual raises, as well as sick and holiday leave.

During the Stop & Shop strike in New England, the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) negotiated on behalf of 31,000 workers to increase pay and preserve their health and pension benefits. And in the southern California strikes in the fall of 2019, the UFCW revealed that major supermarket chains — Vons, Albertsons, Ralphs and Pavilions — offered wage hikes that were below the cost of living, and that their funding for health care was questionable.

Unions can support on-the-job training programs that elevate the standards for the health and safety of its members. Not only does this contribute to a safer, more appealing environment and better working conditions, but it could bolster its members' skill set, making members more valuable on the job, and boosting their odds of a raise or promotion.

Strong Pensions

Only 21% of employers offered a defined benefit plan or pension to all employees in 2019. Despite this, pensions make an attractive perk for grocery employees. An increase in pension contributions to employees' plans helps ensure that your members are able to enjoy retirement after putting in years of work.

As a bargaining collective, it's the union's job to negotiate wages and benefits for its members. What's more, unions need to make the case that offering their members their desired benefits and experience can make hiring for grocery stores easier. By positioning these improvements as a win-win situation, unions can help grocers boost retention, lower costs and create better working conditions for members in the industry.


Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer who has written for both Fortune 500 companies and fintech startups. In a former life, she worked in the communications department of an entertainment labor union. Now a full-time freelancer, she enjoys helping fellow freelancers build a successful business.