The New Life of Retail Workers

Apr 22, 2020 at 6:00 am
COVID-19 pushed grocery store workers to the frontlines.
COVID-19 pushed grocery store workers to the frontlines. DESIGN BY EVAN SULT

At the risk of revealing how truly dull I am, I used to find grocery shopping a calming activity. I love to cook, and sitting down to write a grocery list felt like a respite from everyday anxieties. Even the physical act of shopping was mostly soothing; in under an hour, I could efficiently comb the shelves and look forward to the meals I'd make with those ingredients in the days ahead. If I had a bad day, I could always come home and unwind with the simple pleasure of preparing a meal.

As COVID-19 slowly spreads across the country and restaurants temporarily close or reduce their hours, people are cooking even more at home, myself included. No longer a source of calm for me or anyone else, grocery stores are now destinations for essentials; we don't linger a minute more than needed or make a trip more often than absolutely necessary.

As customers, our internal anxieties about grocery shopping are intensified by the very precautions implemented to protect us inside of stores: Signage urging vigilant social distancing, checklane lines with customers spaced two cart lengths apart, tape on the floors indicating how far to stand from other shoppers, plexiglass barriers shielding workers from us and the chemical sting of Clorox and Purell in the air. Employees are wearing face masks, and if we're responsible, so are we.

For the people working from behind those masks, though, there is no relief from the anxiety and stress of virus exposure. This weighs heavily on my mind, as my mom works in a grocery store. She's spent the past decade working in various departments, from fielding orders behind the seafood counter to preparing vegetable trays and hot foods. She's worked the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas for as long as I can remember. It's why she doesn't take lavish vacations or like to make plans before she can see her weekly schedule. She's a loyal and dedicated employee who takes pride in her work.

Recently, though, because her age puts her in the high-risk category for the virus, she's taken all of her vacation time in an effort to stay at home. Soon, she will have to return to work, as she isn't in a position to quit.

Unfortunately, although she meets the criteria to be considered high risk, she is not eligible for additional time off through her union. The same isn't true for her co-workers who are part of a different union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655. Within just one grocery store, multiple unions can represent workers across different departments. Under normal circumstances this makes sense, but now, when all workers are being put in customer-facing roles, it creates an environment where employees working side by side may not receive the same level of union protection.

Recently, Local 655 brokered a deal with its partners at Schnucks, Dierbergs, Straub's and other independent stores to allow high-risk employees to apply for disability due to COVID-19. If approved, the benefit would allow employees to stay home for thirteen weeks and their jobs would be held for them, they would be paid 90 percent of their usual salary and their health benefits would continue.

The benefit is an impressive and critical step to protect some of the most vulnerable grocery store employees in our city — but unfortunately, it's not available to all of them. Workers like my mom still have more protection than many essential retail employees right now, though, as there is no union representation for workers at many national chains.

David Cook, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, says he's proud of the COVID-19 disability benefit his union has established for its workers. In the same breath, though, he acknowledges that many other employees — sometimes even within the same store — aren't so lucky.

"I don't think, in all honesty, that the other employees have that same benefit," Cook says. "They all made improvements, but I don't think anybody went to the level that we went to [in Local 655, which was 90 percent [of their usual salary paid for COVID-19 disability.] For example, if a Local 74 person has moved to 655 jurisdiction [due to the pandemic], I have allowed that to happen, but generally speaking, I grieve over saying that somebody outside of my bargaining unit is doing my work. But they would not fall under my benefit package."

There is no simple answer to how to protect essential workers right now. Cook says his employers have done an excellent job putting protections and precautions in place in their stores — much more than many non-union stores in town, he adds.

And Cook sympathizes with his employers. There are five different unions for grocery workers in the metro area, and employers are bargaining with each one. That bargaining has never been more critical than now, when everything else store management is juggling is just as critical.

"If I was in their shoes," Cook says, "I'd be going nuts."