Pam Hill took leave of her job as a cashier for the Albertons grocery chain in Los Angeles after two colleagues tested positive for Covid-19.
Now, after experiencing symptoms of the virus, she is awaiting the results of tests that will determine if she can return to work. “I have to go back, even if I am nervous,” she said. “There is no safety net here. . . to catch us. “
As the coronavirus epidemic ravages the US economy, grocery stores and essential retailers are among the few companies to escape the recession. Sales of U.S. grocery stores jumped more than 25% between February and March, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, while food retailers such as Kroger and Ahold Delhaize each reported an annual increase of 30% or more last month.
But as stores flourish, the same cannot be said of many of their workers.
At least 15 grocers represented by the International Union of United Food and Commercial Workers, who cover approximately 900,000 grocery workers and 250,000 food and meat processing workers, have died as a result from Covid-19. More than 2,200 missed work because they tested positive, quarantined, or were hospitalized.
“The point is, there is only one way to reduce the risk to customers and workers: wear masks,” said Marc Perrone, president of the union. However, no major retailer has mandated their use in all stores, he added.
The union has campaigned to classify food distribution workers as essential workers, giving them access to additional masks and rapid virus tests. Some companies have joined the campaign. Albertsons, where Ms. Hill works, published a full-page ad in the New York Times in collaboration with the UFCW.
“Albertsons companies are doing everything in our power to prioritize the health and safety of our associates, customers and communities, and to ensure that our customers have access to the food, medicine and other essentials they need at this critical time, “said the company. said in a statement.
“Made [workers] sign up for this kind of thing? No, “said Mr. Perrone. “We just shouldn’t be treating them like they’re disposable, that they don’t deserve the tests and the equipment to protect them.” It’s just wrong. “
Most retailers transferred part of their increased income to workers, raising hourly wages by $ 2-3 an hour during the crisis. They also offered single crisis bonuses to compensate employees for their overtime and tried to get paychecks faster.
They have also taken steps to improve the safety of employees and customers. Managers installed protective screens at checkouts, equipped stores with hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes, and introduced temperature controls for workers. Target cleans its customers’ touch screens at least every 30 minutes.
Stores across the country limit the number of customers: Aldi limits stores to around five buyers per 1,000 square feet while Kroger monitors traffic using infrared technology.
However, some workers and the unions representing them say the measures were insufficient and arrived too late. Critics complain that no large retail chain has demanded that all customers and workers wear masks inside their stores, following individual city and state guidelines instead. Many retailers have not temporarily closed the disinfection site after confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Perrone said the stores had experienced increased sales due to the panic as people realized that the restaurants would be closed for the foreseeable future. But this was accompanied by an increase in anxiety among employees. In a recent survey of union members, 97 percent said they were concerned about the virus, he said.
John Grant, President of UFCW Local 770, said that too many store managers were concerned about sales and that there were still too many customers in the stores, especially in the larger communities. poor.
In the Bronx, Jessica, a former Target employee who asked to be mentioned by a pseudonym, said that she had struggled for weeks about whether to continue working because the conditions at the store worsened regularly during winter and spring.
Some clients did not respect the order of six feet from the social distance or coughed or sneezed without covering their mouths. One day, a shipment of Clorox wipes arrived and a horde of customers ran into the store, pushing employees aside to get them. A fist fight broke out. From that moment, the police remained ready to open the store.
She started wearing gloves, but only had access to one pair, so wore the same ones over and over. His mom sewed a mask for him. But that did not seem enough.
“I started to feel really guilty about going to work,” she said. But she also felt guilty for staying at home. Her father, who suffers from diabetes, was no longer paid for his work in a church. Her sister worked at home for profit, but she was not sure that her work would continue. Jessica therefore continued to work.
One Tuesday, her manager called to say that a salesperson she interacted with had fallen ill. After careful consideration, Jessica told her boss that she was not coming back. His decision appeared to be confirmed when several store employees tested positive.
In a statement, Target said it had followed the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the epidemic developed. The company announced earlier this month that it would start supplying all workers with masks and gloves at the start of each shift – a process it said would take two weeks.
Jessica said Target had done the kind of blast business it would usually do around Christmas or Black Friday, and paid employees with higher hourly wages and bonuses. But in the end, it was not about the extra money.
“I feel like money doesn’t even matter. I feel like I’m more upset about not closing the store and disinfecting it completely.”
For now, all she can do is wait to see if the two people she knows who are in intensive care with a coronavirus will fully recover and to see if the owner will be okay if the family cannot not pay the rent on time, or if she will ever return to the job she left three weeks ago.
“We have no power over the situation now, so we have to wait,” she said. “That’s it.”