Grocery Store Workers Are Risking Their Lives For Little Pay

They make roughly half the average national income, and they’re at risk of COVID-19 exposure as they continue to work to ensure shelves are restocked and communities fed.

Grocery Store Workers Are Risking Their Lives For Little Pay

They make roughly half the average national income, and they’re at risk of COVID-19 exposure as they continue to work to ensure shelves are restocked and communities fed.

A month ago, Christine, a college student who works at a Publix in southwest Florida, didn’t expect to feel like she was taking her life in her hands every time she came to work. (She asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of reprisals.)

A typical opening shift used to involve three employees, she said: a bagger and two cashiers. 

When she arrived for her shift an hour and a half early on March 22, all 10 registers had an assigned cashier and bagger, and there were around nine additional workers on the premises. Florida had just announced confirmation of 1,007 COVID-19 cases and 13 deaths, and the imminent closure of public parks statewide.

As the number of COVID-19 infections rose nationwide over the course of March, Christine estimates there was a fourfold increase in customers at Publix. She and her colleagues have been working more hours to not only serve the influx, but to maintain high sanitary standards across the entire store: deep-cleaning conveyor belts, registers, trolleys, and bathrooms. 

Christine is one of nearly three million people working in grocery stores across the country. Along with banks, post offices, hospitals, and pharmacies, grocery stores are one of a small number of businesses that remain open. Grocery store workers, who make roughly half the average national income, are at risk of exposure as they continue to work to ensure shelves are restocked and communities fed. Yet many grocery retailers have done little to ensure the safety of their employees, and some are lining up new workers in anticipation of current staff members becoming too sick to work. Retail chains are fast-tracking hiring processes: People can apply to a job at Walmart via text message and be on the job in 24 hours.

“In terms of physical vulnerability, not much has been done. We’re not allowed [to wear] gloves or any masks” due to the appearance of illness this would give to customers, Christine said. 

Although there is hand sanitizer at every register, this has always been the case. “We actually have been putting ourselves at risk for the sake of the customer,” she said. “There is no telling whether we will be affected.” At least four workers at grocery stores around the country have died from COVID-19, according to the Washington Post.

When asked about the company’s guidance on protective gear, a Publix spokesperson said the retail chain follows the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Initially, Publix only recommended gloves for those working in “food handling positions,” but last Friday the CDC updated its recommendation, stating masks should be used in “settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” such as pharmacies and grocery stores. In response to this change, Publix said it is allowing the “option, unless required by local ordinance, to wear masks and gloves for the duration of this national emergency.” 

Dr. Renée Anthony, a specialist in aerosol exposure and respiratory protection at the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, says the riskiest environments for infection are those that demand contact with others. She says when protective gear is normalized, “infected persons are much more likely to wear [it], which, combined with social distancing, has been helpful to slow the rate of infection.”

Since the first reported COVID-19 case on March 6 in Minnesota’s Ramsey County, John, a high school senior who works at a Lunds & Byerlys in White Bear Lake, says his hours have nearly doubled. (Lunds & Byerlys did not respond to my request for comment.) He asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of jeopardizing his employment prospects. 

“For me, work has drastically changed in a short amount of time,” he said. 

He is often called in for a shift last-minute and required to stay late, and his schedule has increased from two to three shifts a week to at least five, he said. John and his colleagues have not been wearing protective gear—not so much due to official protocol as much as its absence. “There has been little to no guidance whatsoever,” John said. 

Across the country, people are recognizing grocery store workers as unsung heroes of COVID-19. On March 18, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz issued guidance that classifies “food distribution workers” as Tier 2 emergency workers, granting grocery store clerks, stockers, cleaning staff, as well as deli and produce staff, access to free childcare for children under 12 years old. The Minnesota Grocers Association celebrated the measure as vital support for industry workers.

On the same day, Vermont Governor Philip Scott announced a similar measure, which took effect on Monday, and has set up an online form for those working in an “essential industry” to connect with a local childcare provider. 

But for someone like John, this executive order changes nothing. John said his employer has yet to communicate the free childcare proviso to employees and, even if it had, most of his colleagues either do not have children, or their children are old enough to have moved out. He wishes the designation of “emergency personnel” entailed paid sick leave and hazard pay instead. While some major chains such as Safeway and Whole Foods have given a time-limited $2 per hour pay raise to employees, this is not the case across all grocery retailers. As of last week, neither John nor Christine had gotten a raise (although Publix gave out two $50 gift cards as a thank you), and Whole Foods workers organized a sick-out, citing their pay raise as insufficient in tackling the multiple vulnerabilities they assume on the job.  

Other states are poised to follow Minnesota and Vermont’s lead. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 770 is calling on California Governor Gavin Newsom to classify grocery store workers across the state as emergency personnel. According to John Grant, president of UFCW 770, grocery clerks are being “used as cannon fodder,” and are unfairly expected to assume the responsibility of health officials, but with none of the protections. The UFCW 770-led petition marries the reclassification of “emergency personnel” with the right to a set of health and safety measures including the right to protective gear, free COVID-19 testing, and 14 days of additional paid sick leave. On March 31, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an emergency motion requiring employers to provide grocery employees with protective supplies.

As COVID-19 infections rise and grocery stores expedite recruitment of new employees to keep up with demand, workers say it is crucial that the symbolic classification of emergency personnel is met with universalistic benefits such as a pay raise, hazard pay, paid sick leave, and the right to routinely wash hands and wear protective gear. They say these benefits should be put in place nationwide and should not depend on an employee testing positive in order to take effect. 

“We are people too—we are also afraid,” said Maya Daly, a cashier at a discount grocery in Richmond, Virginia. “But we’re here.”

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