Grocery Store Workers Increasingly Afraid to Show Up at Work

Photo: Washington Post Photo By Toni L. Sandys A Giant employee restocks eggs in a Silver Spring, Maryland, store Friday, March 27, 2020.

Doug Preszler wasn’t thinking about risk when he took a cashier job at a regional supermarket in eastern Iowa. But five months in, he has found himself at the forefront of a global crisis with little training or protection – save for the pocket-size bottle of hand sanitizer and Ziploc full of disposable gloves he brings from home each day.

The 51-year-old has told himself not to live in fear, yet concedes he increasingly is. Even the most routine tasks are fraught: Accepting bills and giving change scare him the most, Preszler says. And he has run through so much hand sanitizer that his skin is cracking.

“I’ve been way more anxious this week,” he said. “They’ve started telling people: ‘Go to the grocery store as little as possible.’ And yet I’m going there every day.”

Next to health-care providers, no workforce has proved more essential during the novel coronavirus pandemic than the 3 million U.S. grocery store employees who restock shelves and freezers, fill online orders and keep checkout lines moving. Although the public health guidelines are clear – steer clear of others – these workers are putting in longer shifts and taking on bigger workloads. Many report being stressed and scared, especially as their colleagues fall ill to covid-19, the highly contagious disease responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.

Some liken their job to working in a war zone, knowing that the simple act of showing up to work could ultimately kill them. At least 41 supermarket employees have died – including a Trader Joe’s worker in New York, a Safeway employee in Chicago, two Walmart associates near Chicago, and four Kroger employees in Michigan. Thousands more have tested positive for the virus.

Now workers across the country are staying home or quitting altogether, according to interviews with more than a dozen employees, leaving many markets short-staffed and ill-prepared to deal with demand. That’s complicated the scramble led by Walmart, Kroger and Safeway to fill hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Demand for groceries has doubled in recent weeks, employees say, as Americans avoid restaurants and prepare most of their meals at home.

Job postings for grocery clerks have jumped 60% the past four weeks, according to Julia Pollock, a labor economist for the site ZipRecruiter. Supermarkets are increasingly hard-pressed to find and keep staffers. Workers are walking out, going on strike and circulating petitions aimed at getting companies such as Amazon, Trader Joe’s and delivery service Instacart to take additional measures to protect their health.

“The language in job postings has become more desperate,” Pollock said. “Grocery companies are saying there’s an ‘urgent need,’ or that they need workers to ‘start immediately.’ It’s becoming more difficult to convince workers to put themselves at risk.”

Chains such as Kroger and Safeway have begun providing masks and gloves. Walmart is checking employees’ temperatures before each shift. And countless large and regional chains have installed shields at cash registers and signs encouraging social distancing – the best defense against spreading the coronavirus. But employees say more needs to be done.

“Grocery workers are risking their safety, often for poverty-level wages, so the rest of us can shelter in place,” said John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “The only way the rest of us are able to stay home is because they’re willing to go to work.”

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SOURCE: Chron.com; The Washington Post, Abha Bhattarai