UC Berkeley study finds employee benefits decline while food retail expands

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Update 6/12/2014: This article has been updated to reflect new statements from Safeway.

The wages, benefits and working conditions of employees in the food retail industry have declined while grocery chains have flourished, according to a recent study published by UC Berkeley.

More than 900 employees were interviewed statewide from chain food retailers such as Walmart, Target and Costco for the study authored by Saru Jayaraman, director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center. Food retail workers experience increasing rates of poverty and double the rates of food insecurity compared with the general population, a result of being unable to afford food and progress within a company, according to the study.

“It’s a sad irony that a state that produces the most food and one of the richest agricultural states in the world has the highest levels of food insecurity within the sector,” said Eric Holt Gimenez, executive director of Bay Area nonprofit Food First.

According to Jayaraman, jobs in this industry used to be seen as well-paid positions, and employees enjoyed profitable careers with room to advance professionally. By 2012, however, the median minimum wage paid by unionized food retailers in California had fallen from $19.38 per hour in 2000 to $15.17, the study found.

“We see this growth in grocery retail, yet the workers are earning less money overall in spite of the fact that profits and grocery retail are expanding in California,” said Kathryn De Master, campus assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management.

This “flattening effect” is due to a perceived threat that companies like Safeway feel from Walmart and Target, which follow a “low-price, low-cost, anti-union business model,” Jayaraman said.

Yet Walmart — which has only penetrated the food retail labor market in California by 3 percent — is not a threat of competition to traditionally unionized grocery stores like Albertsons and Safeway, Jayaraman said.  She hypothesized that these smaller chains use the perceived threat as a negotiation tactic to make it harder for unions to receive desirable wages and contracts.

“Either they’re perceiving something that doesn’t exist, or they’re not perceiving, and they’re just saying they are,” Jayaraman said.

Gimenez emphasized that the study’s findings and significance are not just about low wages and long labor hours: Poor working conditions, lack of adequate health benefits and the requirement that employees work when ill are also some critical factors of the findings.

“To suggest, as the report does, that the growth of non-union, low-cost operators has been exaggerated simply ignores the facts,” said Safeway spokesperson Teena Massingill in an email, adding that nearly all of the company’s employees are represented by a collective bargaining union.

Walmart did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Unionization is key, Gimenez said, because where workers are organized, they have better access to vacations, health benefits and schedule stability.

“We have to first all recognize that this is not only inequitable, it’s also unsustainable,” Gimenez said of the low-cost business models. “The real strong correlation is that where labor is organized, you have greater security in all aspects of the job, not just food.”

Contact Natalie Meier at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @nat_meier.