Unvaccinated Kroger employees that contract COVID-19 will lose paid emergency leave

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Some unvaccinated grocery store employees in the Milwaukee area will no longer be eligible for some emergency benefits if they contract the coronavirus.

Kroger owns Pick 'n Save and Metro Market. The company says the changes are effective Jan. 1. Unvaccinated employees will no longer be eligible for two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected. The paid emergency leave policy was put in place last year before vaccines were available.

A Milwaukee labor attorney says many companies are considering similar strategies to encourage vaccination, but he adds doing so could also bring negative effects.

Scott LeBlanc, a labor and employment attorney at Hush Blackwell, said, "From a legal standpoint, if they want to say you have to be vaccinated in order to get paid leave, they have the ability to be able to do that."

LeBlanc says private companies are free to remove benefits they put in place, but adds they should also consider the ramifications.

Kroger declined requests for an interview, but a spokesperson wrote in a statement "We continue to offer a variety of forms of leave for associates who may contract the virus, including earned PTO and the ability to apply for unpaid leave."

Additionally, Kroger continues to offer $100 payments for fully vaccinated employees, and says "The special leave will remain available to fully vaccinated associates who may have breakthrough cases."

LeBlanc says a number of companies are also considering removing benefits for unvaccinated employees. But he says most are holding off on making a decision. In his experience, he says the carrot has worked better than the stick.

What's complicating matters is in addition to struggling with the pandemic, companies are also struggling to find enough talent. LeBlanc said, "I think a lot of employers, particularly in areas where the vaccination rates are not particularly high, are trying to strike that balance because they know if they go too far, then they're not going to be able to fill the jobs that they need to fill."

In the meantime, LeBlanc says companies do need to consider any negative effects. "Putting in place a policy like this is probably going to make it more likely that an employee is going to show up for work sick because they don't have any paid leave in order to be able to use under those circumstances."

Kroger employs nearly 500,000 people in the US. The company will also charge a $50 monthly fee to unvaccinated salaried employees who are enrolled in a company health care plan.

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