Jeanne Olsen, 59, recycles for extra income.
According to her, the plastic and metal scrap she collects on her off days can fill her entire living space. When she has enough, she takes bags of it by bus to Sunland-Tujunga recycling center, in California's La Canada Flintridge.
She said, "It's money for nothing." On the best days, I can earn around $115. I have a child that is still with me and I must provide for him. So I do it."
Olsen works at Ralphs, which is a subsidiary to the nation's biggest grocery chain, Kroger, for 48 hours per week. Recycling is a side hustle. She was making $14.90 an hour until recently. This has been bumped up by $15.90 to the beginning of the year. According to her, her family has suffered from food insecurity over the past four years and was barely able pay rent. They also experienced homelessness.
Olsen is just one of many Kroger employees who have struggled to pay for their housing or feed themselves. According to a survey of 10,000 US unionized workers, 1 in 7 Kroger employees experienced homelessness within the last year. Over three quarters of the respondents also report being food insecure. Other Kroger employees echo the problems Olsen faces with the company, as well as thousands of Kroger workers striking elsewhere in the country. Olsen describes what she calls an unlivable salary, limited full-time opportunities and unpredictable schedules in a tight-staffed environment.
She said, "I have seen people lose their jobs when they lost their homes. They couldn't get to work because it was so difficult to find a place to live." "That was almost like me."
Before Olsen joined Kroger, she worked as an entertainment agent for over 25 years. Olsen claimed she earned $40 an hour and never thought she would do anything else. However, her company was restructured in 2008 due to the financial crisis. Olsen was not trained to do the job for her company, so her insurance license was eventually canceled. After her husband died, Olsen became a single mother with two children.
While Olsen's little girl worked at Ralphs, the family managed to get by on unemployment for a while. Olsen applied to the job and was made an associate at Murray's specialty cheese shop within Ralphs.
Olsen stated that she is happy to be employed and does a job she loves, but it's hard to pay for electricity and gas.
She said, "We live in Top Ramen around there."
Four years ago, her family was briefly homeless. This happened shortly after she began working at Ralphs. When her landlord began stealing from her, she forced her to leave the $800 per month room she had paid. She couldn't afford another room for nearly a month so her family stayed with her brother. Olsen claimed that she was lucky to have the $800 room but that her luck was over.
She said, "I couldn’t afford to pay more rent than I could afford now, and I can’t afford a vehicle now." People always ask me why I don't save for these things. "People always say, "Why don't you save up for those things?" I would respond, "I don't have the money to save."
Kroger, the nation's fourth-largest employer of private workers, is now conducting a survey of union employees. The company has seen a rise in profits that have been reflected in multi-million-dollar gains for its CEO, and shareholders. The survey shows that Kroger's workers have seen their "real wages", which are adjusted for inflation, decrease over the past few years.
Olsen stated, "I work as hard as I can, and I still have to scrounge to get my rent paid." "Everyone that I work with who lived alone in a house must now have a roommate."
The survey found that nearly one in five (18%) Kroger employees had not paid their previous month's mortgage in time. In addition, approximately 65,000 of the 465,000 national workers experienced homelessness in 2020. Data points such as these are partly due to the decline in real incomes over the last three decades.
A spokesperson for Kroger told Insider about the survey and directed Insider to a study that Kroger had commissioned. It found Kroger's hourly associates earn more than their peers in the overall retail industry.
They wrote that "We are an employer that cares about all people and our associates' basic need" and referred to two internal programs that offer financial aid to employees in times of emergency or enable them to access their wages earlier.
Insider was told by Peter Dreier, a researcher who conducted the survey. "The greatest irony and tragedy is that these people spend all day around food, but when they get home, they can't afford their families adequate food," he said.
Researchers also found that Kroger's low pay and unpredictability leaves young people and parents with very few options. According to Olsen, the reasons for high turnover, low wages and sporadic scheduling were also responsible. Kroger is the only source of income for 86% of workers. However, employees struggle to find second jobs as they don't have a set schedule. Even Olsen, the vast majority of employees work part-time.
Olsen stated, "At my store, they encouraged us to go get another job if we didn't like our hours." "I was able to identify a girl who had three jobs but owned a car. I cannot afford one. Transport is an important part of my problem. I can't physically walk every day to the store. It's a constant struggle to keep my sanity, as I am so exhausted all the time.
Olsen claims that Kroger's policies regarding work, schedule, and pay have "exhausted her".
They barely pay us. She said that they gave us tasks that were impossible to complete within the time given. "I am not a robot. I love to work and I love my customers... but Kroger does not care about me."