As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) rapidly spreads across the world, Americans are flocking to grocery stores to stockpile essential goods as they self-quarantine in their homes. Despite the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) public advisory to avoid crowds and to practice physical distancing, grocery store workers across the country continue to work tirelessly to provide food for the public. They have become the unsung heroes of the pandemic.
“It’s time for those employers to recognize how valuable their employees are and offer protections to their employees when they need it most,” Mike Roberts, Field Director at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 881, tells Food Tank.
Grocery store workers have always worked under precarious economic and health conditions. Wages are low, health insurance is lacking, and scheduled work hours for part-time employees are inconsistent. The majority of workers were also not entitled to paid sick leave until the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was passed.
The lack of worker protections makes employees more susceptible to catching the virus. Especially now that panic buying is sweeping across grocery stores, employees are scrambling to meet the demands of customers.
“The conditions are serious and pose a great health risk to every employee who reports…each time they clock in,” says Roberts.
Employees are working in the middle of crowded stores, and are working past store operation hours to disinfect surfaces and restock empty shelves. Some customers are even making employees’ jobs more difficult by performatively coughing on produce. Situations like these agitate and endanger employees and their families.
“The stores have become much more stressful places to work, while at the same time they are facing great uncertainty about what will happen if they need to quarantine or become sick,” Roberts tells Food Tank. “Should that happen, how will they pay their bills, take care of their loved ones, or maintain their jobs and benefits?”
COVID-19 is also taking an emotional and mental toll on employees. Employees fear for their lives as they are forced to work without proper protective gear because of supply shortages. And under such a high-pressure environment, workers are crying and experiencing panic attacks.
Despite this deluge of stress, workers remain dedicated to providing much-needed services to worried customers.
“It’s definitely an unsettling situation for the workers in grocery stores, but they still understand the bigger picture and without their dedication, the widespread public panic and fears would be multiplied many times over,” Roberts tells Food Tank.
To address the workers’ concerns, grocery stores are taking safety precautions. Some stores are installing plexiglass shields, drawing physical distancing floor markers, and imposing limits on store capacity. Others have special hours designated for the elderly and immunocompromised customers. Supermarket chains such as Walmart and Safeway are hiring additional employees, and are raising wages by two dollars an hour.
Several states such as Minnesota and Vermont now recognize grocery workers as “essential workers”, and provide them healthcare eligibility. Local UFCW unions are also negotiating contracts with employers to get members benefits like incentive pay and paid time off.
While union leaders believe that these changes are a good start, they say that much more needs to be done to protect workers and their families.
“Even with a union and these improved protections, many workers are living on the edge,” Tom Geiger, Director of Communications at UFCW Local 21, tells Food Tank. “The cost of housing, insecure food, and access to transit are all important and need to be addressed.”
Unions call for stronger worker protection measures. “They need to be designated as first responders,” says Roberts. “They need to be compensated with hazard pay, they need access to paid leave if they get sick, they need support for their dependents, and like healthcare workers, they need to be prioritized for access to personal protective gear like masks and gloves and testing for the virus.”
Geiger also tells Food Tank that grocery workers require more flexible schedules and a right to increased work hours if desired. Clear information from public health officials, according to Geiger, is also critical for workers to keep customers and loved ones safe. Joining a union would provide an additional layer of financial protection as well. Unions provide worker relief funds and grassroots mutual aid efforts are available for additional support.
Roberts and Geiger encourage concerned shoppers to take health guidelines seriously, and to thank their grocery store employees for their work. Roberts also suggests contacting your elected officials to demand the passage of worker friendly legislation for American grocery workers.
“Grocery workers must be on the front lines and our government, along with their employers, must do more to protect them,” says Roberts.