PORTLAND, Ore. — If you've shopped at a Fred Meyer store in the Portland area recently, you may have seen the signs advertising for replacement workers. The signs say replacement employees may be needed to keep stores up and running if workers go on strike.

The signs also offer to pay replacement workers $15 an hour, which the union says is more than current employees make.

But is a strike imminent?

UFCW Local 555, the grocery workers union, has been trying to negotiate better pay with the region's biggest supermarkets, including Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Albertsons.

Daniel Clay, president of the union, said negotiations have been tough, and pointed to a gender wage gap as one of the primary areas of concern.

"The major issues ... are wages and wage equity for women," Clay said. [These] are the folks that put food on the table, and these folks work really hard and they deserve a fair wage. It's not OK for men who run Fred Meyer to make more by paying women less."

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The union is negotiating on behalf of about 25,000 workers across Oregon and Southwest Washington. With workers having voted to strike if negotiations stay at a standstill, Clay said the process is at a tipping point.

"It's not something as easy to fix as you might hope in 2019," Clay said. "[Workers] should be able to have a roof over their heads, should be able to provide for their families — food, shelter, take the kids to the doctor. Pretty simple. Not a huge ask."

The union negotiates pay schedules and progressions with the different supermarket chains. 

Clay says there is a difference in wages, however, because of the types of jobs women and men occupy. For example, at Fred Meyer, there are Schedule A and Schedule B jobs: Schedule A pays $17.20 an hour while Schedule B pays $13.50.

"If you’re a guy there’s a two-thirds chance you are in Schedule A making $17.20 an hour and if you’re a woman there is a two-thirds chance you’re in Schedule B making $13.50 an hour," Clay explained, "and companies came out and said, 'oh, the jobs aren’t the same, they’re so much easier to work in the deli than it is to put boxes or fruit out on shelves. And nobody is knocking folks who do that - they work hard and deserve the money. But there is not a tougher job in the store than working in deli at Fred Meyer."

He says working in a deli exposes you to risks of getting burned or cut and workers deal with different circumstances than others.

Clay says it's frustrating Fred Meyer is willing to pay replacement workers $15 an hour when most employees, currently fighting for a fair wage, don't make that much.

"It is unbelievably frustrating for our members who have been committed long-term to Fred Meyer," Clay added.

Jeffery Temple, a spokesperson for Fred Meyer, disagreed with the accusation of a gender wage gap. He said the gap does not exist, and clarified that some jobs pay more based on the type of work and hours required.

"The recent statements about an alleged pay gap based on gender between women and men working at Fred Meyer are simply not true, and we see them as an unfortunate misrepresentation of our associates," Temple said in a statement. 

He went on to say wages for women and men are the same for all union grocery retailers in the area. "We all pay workers from the same schedule structure negotiated by the union."

Temple told KGW the company doesn't funnel workers to any job type based on their gender. "We encourage all applicants to apply for jobs that appeal to them and their lifestyle, so that they will hopefully love their work and stay with the company," he said.

Clay said the gender wage gap does exist, and Fred Meyer has been the least willing of all the chains to close it or fix any problems with pay. "Truly, Fred Meyer seems like the only group anxious to jump into a strike," he said.

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To get back to the negotiating table, the union pitched meeting again early next month. They said they're still waiting to hear back.

"We're very interested in getting back to the table to try to get a contract that is worthy of my members here, and we're not looking to strike as a first option," Clay said. "We're looking at it as a last option if it's something we have to do."

The company has been posting negotiation updates online. If you're interested, you can check them out for yourself.

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