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Kroger to end paid COVID-19 leave for unvaccinated workers

Kroger, one of the country's biggest employers, is adding a few sticks to the carrots already offered by the grocery chain to encourage workers to protect themselves from COVID-19

The company will no longer offer paid emergency leave to unvaccinated employees who contract COVID-19, according to a Kroger spokesperson. Under the policy, unvaccinated workers who get the virus can use earned paid time off or apply for unpaid leave.

"As we prepare to navigate the next phase of the pandemic, we are modifying policies to encourage safe behaviors including vaccination, which we continue to incentivize with a $100 payment for all fully vaccinated associates," a Kroger spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

"The special leave will remain available to fully vaccinated associates who may have breakthrough cases," she added.

The move by Kroger comes with just over 60% of the American population fully vaccinated against a virus that's killed nearly 800,000 in the U.S., and as the Delta and Omicron variants continue to spread. It also comes amid uncertainty for businesses over the fate of federal vaccination rules, with those issued by the Biden administration facing multiple court challenges. 

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Salaried, unvaccinated Kroger workers enrolled in a company health care plan will pay a $50 monthly surcharge, starting January 1, 2022, with hourly and unionized workers exempt from the new policy, according to the company. 

Among the world's biggest retailers on the globe, the Cincinnati-based company employs nearly half a million people and runs 2,750 stores in 35 states under two dozen banners including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter and Pick 'n Save. 

Backing a national effort to get more Americans immunized, Kroger back in May said it would give away $1 million to five customers and free groceries to another 50 to encourage more people to get the shots.  

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration last month said companies with 100 or more workers would have to have a vaccinated workforce or weekly tests by January 4. Some companies suspended vaccine mandates for workers after a U.S. court recently blocked mandating vaccination for federal contractors. A federal appeals court is now weighing whether to restore OSHA's mandate.

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