CASPER — Wyoming Albertsons workers had a lot to say to CEO Vivek Sankaran Tuesday, and questions about how the proposed $25 billion merger with Kroger could affect their jobs and retirement.
Vivek was in Casper visiting Albertsons locations with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.
Barrasso told Cowboy State Daily he’d brought the grocery chain’s top executive to Casper to hear the concerns employees here have with the proposed $25 billion merger between Kroger and Albertsons. Barasso and his wife Bobbi shop at both stores, and are friends with some of the store’s employees. That led the employees to share their concerns with the senator and his wife.
Initially, Cowboy State Daily and other media were invited to be on the tour with Sankaran and Barrasso, but later were told the tour would be private. No media allowed.
Sankaran left the store without talking to reporters about his visit, but Barrasso stuck around to chat about the visit that he had orchestrated after a chance introduction a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C.
“The people who are working in these stores asked all the questions you can imagine that they would ask about their own jobs, about what happens in their retirement, about what happens with stores if there’s consolidation,” Barrasso said after the tour. “(Sankaran) assured them that that’s not the intention of anyone, that the idea is to grow the business, to grow the size of the stores and to make sure that at the front line, certainly, you have more people working.”
Barrasso added that he was pleased that Sankaran made the time to come to Casper to hear firsthand about the work Albertsons employees are doing every day, day-in, day-out.
“Many of these people have been with the stores for 20, 30 years,” Barrasso said. “And whether it’s the pharmacy, the produce department, the meat department — you name it — the bakery, flowers, all of those things. All of those people contribute significantly to the community in which we live. I wanted to make sure they would hear from the CEO.”
Shopping At Albertsons
Albertsons shoppers, meanwhile, noticed that something was different Tuesday with Sankaran in town.
“Today is the day to go to Albertsons on Second Street,” Vickie Lyn, an Albertsons shopper in Casper posted on Facebook Tuesday afternoon. “The corporate big wigs are there (not blending in). It looks like a brand new store! Shelves fully stocked and faced. Nothing out of place. Clerks offering samples of food … I KNOW … WHAT IS THIS PLACE?! They’re probably big wigs from Kroger … Go away! No one wants a conglomerate!”
Lyn told Cowboy State Daily privately that she feels the employees in Casper have always done a good job and that she loves shopping there.
But, she added, the staging was fairly obvious.
“The corporate employees weren’t interacting with customers at all,” she added. “They were oogling the creativity of a potato display! The bells and whistles weren’t for the shoppers, but corporate.”
Retirements Are The Biggest Question
A worker at one of the Casper stores, speaking on condition of anonymity who we’ll call Jordan for this article, told Cowboy State Daily the biggest flashpoint for employees is what happens to workers and their retirements if some stores close as a result of the Albert-Krogerson deal.
That’s exactly what happened the merger before this one, when Safeway and Albertsons combined in 2015. Several stores were “spun off” to Haggens Food and Pharmacy, but went bankrupt less than a year later.
That was disastrous for the retirements of longtime employees at those stores, according to UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova, who has talked to Cowboy State Daily previously about the union’s concerns with the merger.
Employees who are still with Albertsons when it merged with Safeway in 2015 still remember how things were then, Jordan told Cowboy State Daily.
They cannot help but fear the same dynamic is playing out once again.
Management is telling employees “don’t worry,” Jordan said.
But saying don’t worry is much different than guaranteeing everyone will have a job when the merger chips finally land.
“This is a great store to work at, it’s like a big family that we have there,” Jordan said, adding that, “If we don’t have a job (at the end of the merger), who’s going to hire people who are at 60, 65 years old?”
One of the Casper Albertsons is a mile away from a Smith’s, which is owned by Kroger, Jordan said.
Too Soon To Worry, Barrasso Says
Asked if he’s concerned that one or more of the Albertsons stores might close in Casper, Barrasso suggested things haven’t progressed to the worry point yet.
“The people that oversee this from a federal level haven’t even approved of this merger,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “That’s not even going to be decided until next year.”
Pressed to consider the merger’s consequences from the standpoint of a map showing the proximity of stores in Casper, Barrasso said, “I got the opinion, no, not at all. And that’s not the desire that I understand.”
Barrasso added that such concerns are why he wanted to bring Sankaran to the Casper Albertsons stores, so these concerns could be aired.
“The idea is to make sure that he put a face on the people who work here, to see what’s up and understand the community, and understand the needs of the community, as well as the workers and people who shop here,” Barrasso said.
As far as whether grocery stores are getting too concentrated on a nationwide scale for there to be real competition, Barrasso said, “It’s an interesting point,” adding that a combined Albert-Krogerson company would still only be the fourth largest in the U.S. behind Walmart, Costco and Amazon.
It would, however, make the new store a giant in the supermarket sector, outside of giant department-like stores that now sell anything and everything, like Walmart, Amazon and Costco.
“Amazon is actually No. 2,” Barrasso said. “So, by any of those criteria, even if this merger does go through, it’s still not (in) the top 3 in terms of production, and as you point out, competition.”
Kroger has suggested in online statements touting the merger that if it’s bigger, it will be able to set its own prices, more like Walmart does with its suppliers, which it anticipates will lower prices for the public.
Whether that’s good for competition farther down the supply chain, like the farmers who supply the produce that’s being marked down by outsized buying power, is something the Federal Trade Commission will study, Barrasso suggested.
“The Federal Trade Commission is going to have hearings on that,” he said. “They actually had hearings in the Senate on that.”
Barrasso stressed that the real purpose he had in bringing Sankaran to Casper was so that workers there could talk about their concerns with the man in charge.
“These are friends, family and neighbors that I’ve known for lots longer than when I was a senator,” Barrasso said. “I care about them, and I want to make sure that — I took care of them as patients, and I will take care of them now.”
Prospective Retirees Finding American Dream Elusive
With prices going up everywhere — not just at Albertsons — the questions employees at the Casper stores have center around an American dream that’s becoming more and more distant for many nearing retirement age.
“(Prices) are up for everything,” Jordan told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s not just, you know, Albertsons. It’s everywhere. Prices are going up in restaurants, to wash your car, anything like that.”
The employee already knows of retirees who thought they’d saved enough to retire who are returning to work at advanced ages to survive and make ends meet.
That’s not the retirement most Americans have dreamed about, and it has longtime Albertsons employees in Casper wondering if that won’t be some of them as well if the merger goes through.
“We’re not 20 anymore,” Jordan said. “We’re just worried about, you know, is our store going to be closed? Is it still going to run? What’s going to happen to our pension? What’s going to happen to our health and welfare. Basically, those concerns, and, you know, if they do shut it down, where are we going to go work at our ages?”
Such questions are not just being asked at Casper locations. They’re echoed across the nation as grocery store workers face another merger that they fear will again involve closed stores and jeopardized retirements — just like the 2015 merger between Safeway and Albertsons.
“Our members were glad to see Senator Barrasso visit their stores and hear directly from workers about their serious concern about the Kroger-Albertsons merger,” a UFCW Local 7 spokesperson told Cowboy State Daily. “Any reassurances form Albertsons that workers will not be impacted by the merger due to store closures and/or divestures is not accurate, as we witnessed in the previous merger between Safeway and Albertsons, when there were multiple closures throughout the state and workers lost their jobs — including two Safeway stores in Casper.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.