RICHLAND — Fred Meyer workers in Richland could become the first grocery store employees in Eastern Washington in recent memory to join a union through an election, according to United Food and Commercial Workers.
The workers there filed Friday for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Next a vote of the store’s about 250 union-eligible workers is expected to be scheduled.
The attempt to unionize does not include workers at the Tri-Cities’ second Fred Meyer store, which is in Kennewick.
Richland employees are seeking better pay and benefits, more stable hours and better working conditions.
Melissa Lozano, an apparel department employee, has a fashion degree, has more than 20 years retail experience, has worked at Fred Meyer since 2018 and only recently had her pay raised to $15.30 an hour.
The store is bringing on new employees with little or no experience for $15 an hour, she said.
Lozano is guaranteed 20 hours of work a week but for many months was working 40-hour weeks, she said.
She thought she would start getting the same benefits as full-time workers, but before that happened her hours were cut to close to 20 a week even though employee turnover is high and she does the jobs of three people, she said.
She is the lead for accessories within the apparel department, plays a managerial role at night and is required to spend several hours a night straightening up her department so it will be ready for customers in the morning, she said.
“The company blames the labor shortage, but they never talk about what they could do to make these jobs better,” she said. “It’s challenging to take pride in my work under these conditions.”
Employees leave frequently because they can get other jobs that pay better, she said.
When Lozano’s daughter turned 10, she started leaving her home alone because it was difficult to afford childcare.
She had to get management’s approval to allow her daughter to call her while she was working.
She has health insurance through Fred Meyer but her wages are so low she qualifies for state-subsidized insurance.
Fred Meyer’s health insurance plan is accepted by few doctors in the Tri-Cities, she said, and it took a year for her to get an appointment with a family doctor.
When she had a breathing issue early this year and had to go to a hospital emergency room, she received a bill for $3,000 that her Fred Meyer health insurance would not pay, she said.
The state plan ultimately paid what her Fred Meyer health insurance did not.
If it had not, “just been one visit and I would have been homeless,” she said.
Another employee, Eden Hill, who fills grocery orders placed online and delivers them to cars as they arrive, says the low wages kept her from affording a place of her own to live.
In the year and a half she’s worked at Fred Meyer, she has lived in three different places, bouncing from a friend’s apartment to a family friend’s house.
Getting a second job is not an option because she doesn’t get the same days off each week and hours vary.
She is usually scheduled for 30 to 35 hours a week, but many days she works longer than scheduled because of staffing shortages, she said.
”The turnover leaves me scrambling to finish their work,” she said.
The job also leaves her in pain some days. She’s had a case of tennis elbow, and lifting and pulling heavy totes and carts can leave her hips hurting, she said.
“I want a union because me and my co-workers deserve a voice in the decisions that affect us at work,” said another employee, Mandee Boyle, a cashier.
Fred Meyer’s corporate office in Portland, Oregon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The UFCW Local 1439 also has been active over the past hear at Twin City Foods in Pasco.
There workers ratified their first union contract a month ago with more than 200 workers represented.