Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the front of the Park Avenue Hy-Vee in Des Moines on Saturday, blocking off store entrances with their bodies and vehicles, chanting, “f—, Hy-Vee.”
The protest stemmed from a Facebook post from a former Hy-Vee employee who said her manager at the Des Moines store mistreated her after she started attending Black Lives Matter protests.
“I do feel like they treat people of color differently,” said Jassma’ray Johnson, 19, of Des Moines.
Johnson said she worked at Hy-Vee for three years, but when she started becoming more visible during the recent Black Lives Matter movement in Des Moines, she said she didn’t feel supported by her manager.
When she put up a small “Black Lives Matter” sign next to her cash register, Johnson said she was asked to take it down. Johnson said when she asked to leave work early so she could attend a Des Moines City Council meeting, she said she was talked down to by her manager who questioned her attendance at recent protests. She also said she was asked to work in the back to process “Hy-Vee Aisles Online” orders, which she felt was an effort to keep her away from customers.
She also said she wasn’t notified that some Park Avenue Hy-Vee employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The positive COVID-19 cases at the Park Avenue Hy-Vee were first reported by Iowa Capital Dispatch on June 17. The company still has not released the specific number of workers who have tested positive, but reiterated on Saturday that it’s less than seven.
“It all built up like, ‘Wow, they really don’t care about me,’” Johnson said.
She also said the company supports Republican politicians, including President Donald Trump.
CEO Randy Edeker met with Vice President Mike Pence on May 8 during a roundtable discussion in Des Moines. Hy-Vee corporate headquarters was also the location of the event.
Hy-Vee’s political action committee has also donated to the Republican Party of Iowa, including $25,000 as part of a private event.
In a statement, Tina Potthoff, spokesperson for the company said Hy-Vee staff have tried to speak with Johnson multiple times, “but to no avail.” Potthoff said Johnson was asked to work in the back because help was needed in that area. She also said Johnson was allowed to leave work early to attend an event.
Potthoff said some Hy-Vee employees have now been “threatened” on social media and at the store.
“It’s disappointing that she took these concerns to social media versus addressing them with anyone in the company, which has now led to today’s event,” Potthoff said.
Hy-Vee is known in the grocery store industry for its larger-than-life initiatives, such as hiring Kansas City Quarterback Patrick Mahomes as a spokesperson, partnering with Oprah for a Super Bowl ad and opening “Wahlburgers” restaurants with celebrity Mark Wahlberg.
But behind the scenes, the company isn’t showing it cares about its workforce, protesters said.
Sylvia Jefferson, a former Des Moines Hy-Vee employee, said it’s wrong for the company to not publicly share positive COVID-19 cases at the store. This puts both workers and customers at risk, Jefferson said.
“I’m a single mom of two kids,” Jefferson said. “I can’t afford to get COVID. I can’t afford for my babies to get COVID.”
Potthoff said the company informs employees and vendors if they have been exposed to a worker with COVID-19.
When protesters were first assembling in the parking lot, two higher-up managers came out and asked them to move to a designated area in the back of the parking lot for “safety” reasons.
Protesters quickly told them no.
Instead, they formed human barriers to block vehicles from entering the store off Park Avenue and diverted people through a nearby CVS Pharmacy parking lot instead.
There were some heated moments as customers who were parked at the store tried to leave, accelerating quickly through the parking lot and trying to drive through the barrier of protesters.
At one point, they yelled for the police to arrest a man who tried to drive through the group. No arrests were made on site.
Three Des Moines police officers were seen at the store, though they largely stayed away from the demonstration. During the middle of the protest, they moved inside the store, locking and unlocking the doors to let customers through.
Protesters laters stood in front of the doors, turning people away and warning them, “You’ll catch COVID.”
Efforts like offering bottled water to the protesters and making donations towards racial equity are “bulls—,” Johnson said.
“Hy-Vee is a bulls— company,” Johnson said. “They’re using that as propaganda to change the narrative. They know what they’re doing, they know what they’ve been doing.”
Hy-Vee issued the following statement to the Black Lives Matter protest at the Park Avenue store in Des Moines:
Over the past several weeks, there have been many important conversations on race relations in America. In support of these conversations, Hy-Vee has committed to providing a $1 million donation and one million volunteer hours to organizations that support racial unity and equality.
We are aware of the allegations made by Jassma’ray “Jazzy” Johnson, a former employee at our Park Avenue Hy-Vee store in Des Moines. As an employee-owned company, we are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of our employees, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation or religion.
We do not tolerate harassment or discrimination, and have a process at both the store and corporate level for employees to report any issue. While we cannot comment directly on any specific case, we have tried multiple times to speak with Jassma’ray “Jazzy” Johnson to discuss her situation but to no avail. This is apparent by her Facebook posts of the messages from our employees trying to connect with her. She also claims on Facebook that we placed her in the “back” of the store, when she worked in our Aisles Online department for one day when help was needed in that area. Other claims suggest she was “punished” for attending a protest, when in fact she was allowed to leave work early to attend the event.
It’s disappointing that she took these concerns to social media versus addressing them with anyone in the company, which has now led to today’s event.
We’ve seen the demands of those who are protesting today. Hy-Vee’s existing policies and benefits address nearly every item on their list.
To follow are some examples:
- Hy-Vee conducts ongoing employee reviews, which result in employee raises as appropriate. In 2020, 93.50% of employees at the Park Avenue Hy-Vee received a raise. In 2019, 93.40% of employees received a raise. In the three years that Jassma’ray “Jazzy” Johnson worked at Hy-Vee, she received three raises totaling a 25% increase in pay over that time.
- In mid-March 2020 through the end of May, Hy-Vee provided a 10% bonus for all front-line employees working in our stores. For the Park Avenue Hy-Vee store, this amounted to $66,000 in bonuses. We also provide our employees with a 10% discount on all grocery purchases, with an increase to up to 40% on special occasions. Since the discount was implemented in December 2019, employees at this Hy-Vee location have saved $38,862. Our retail employees also receive premium pay when they work on designated holidays. At this store, that pay has resulted in $3,180 over the past two holidays.
- The safety of our customers and employees is a top priority. We have taken many steps to increase our safety measures during COVID-19, including: increased sanitization throughout the store; providing masks to our employees; installing Plexiglas at the check stations; implementing one-way aisles and one person per cart guidelines; and social distancing markers to name a few. A full list of these steps can be found on our website.
- Part-time employees have the opportunity and are encouraged to apply for full-time positions when they become available. In the past 12 months, nine employees at the Park Avenue Hy-Vee were promoted from part-time to full-time. Once employees are full-time, they receive all applicable benefits, including PTO. Part-time employees at Hy-Vee are also eligible for insurance benefits through a special first-of-its-kind program that was nationally recognized in 2019.
Our attempts to understand and resolve Jassma’ray “Jazzy” Johnson’s specific issues have been unsuccessful as has any outreach to the Black Lives Matter Iowa group. Instead, individual Hy-Vee employees have been targeted and threatened on social media and at the store. Our efforts to understand and address any concerns have been met with silence – until today’s protest. We remain dedicated to maintaining a safe, open and inclusive environment for employees and customers in all of our stores. We are committed to being a part of the solution to any racial divide in our country – our hope is others will do the same.
Senior Vice President, Communications │ Hy-Vee, Inc.