Coronavirus has some unlikely frontline heroes: Grocery store workers

SAN FRANCISCO — While the worsening coronavirus pandemic has shuttered most businesses nationwide to promote social distancing, grocery stores have remained open, putting their employees on the frontlines in a public health emergency.

A worker at Steve’s C-Town in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who spoke to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity, said he doesn’t think the supermarket is taking the health of its employees or customers seriously.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’re doing much,” the worker, who is in his 20s, said. “They don’t tell us to do any precautions. I try to wear gloves and I’m trying to order a mask.”

The worker, who is paid $15 an hour, said that C-Town doesn’t limit the number of customers who enter the store, and regularly exceeds social distancing guidelines laid out by city officials.

“To be honest, the management doesn’t care all that much about safety,” the worker said. “Up until this week, I’ve had more of the view to try not to freak out about what’s going on. Keep staying healthy and self-isolate. The store should probably think more about trying to keep us all safe.”

Reached for comment, a manager at C-Town admitted to Yahoo News that the business was not attempting to limit the number of customers in the store at one time, and confirmed that while some of his employees were wearing masks and gloves, “others really don’t care.”

Health concerns prompted hundreds of Whole Foods employees across the country to launch a sick-out Tuesday.

“We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us,” Whole Worker, the group that organized the sick-out, said in a statement released Monday.

A cashier, left, works behind a plexiglass shield at a Super H Mart grocery store in Niles, Ill., Thursday, March 26, 2020. Local grocery stores are installing plexiglass shields in the checkout aisle as a coronavirus precaution. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A cashier works behind a Plexiglas shield at a Super H Mart grocery store in Niles, Ill., on March 26. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., threw their support behind the protest.

“Corporations like Whole Foods have a moral obligation to take this pandemic seriously and stop putting profits over people,” Sanders said in a tweet that asked his supporters to sign a petition that sought the company, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, to extend paid sick leave for employees.

On its website, Whole Foods said it had implemented a number of new steps in response to the coronavirus, including mandating social distancing in its stores, bumping up pay by $2 per hour for all part- and full-time employees and increasing paid leave by two weeks for any employee diagnosed with COVID-19.

Small grocers have been deemed essential businesses whose workers continue to interface with the local community at a time when the bulk of Americans have been told to stay home. At Shopper’s Corner, a locally owned grocery store in Santa Cruz, Calif., Taylor Posey has had to adapt to a new routine.

“We’re requiring all employees to wear gloves; some are choosing to wear masks. Our customers have to stay 6 feet away from one another at checkout; we have tape on the ground and we can choose to limit the number of people in the store,” Posey, who manages the wine and liquor department, told Yahoo News.

Posey said the days after March 19, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order, saw Shopper’s Corner mobbed by what he called “panic buying.” That deluge meant the store needed to adopt a new system to keep patrons and staff from infecting one another.

“We’re all playing it relatively safe, I would say, though the biggest risk is that we do have a relatively old customer base,” Posey said. “We’ve instituted curbside pickup where our workers are shopping for people and building their orders to come pick up.”

Customers line up to enter a Trader Joe's grocery story, Friday, March 13, 2020, in New York.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Customers line up to enter a Trader Joe's store in New York on March 13. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

For part-time, minimum-wage grocery store employees like 21-year-old college student Lewis Pietropaoli, the focus on the importance of what has been a one-shift-per-week job has been disorienting.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Pietropaoli, who works at a Trader Joe’s in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said of working after Newsom issued his order. “The entire grocery section with all the dry pastas and sauces, beans, that was completely wiped out. The frozen aisle as well, not a single thing.”

As with Whole Foods and Shopper’s Corner, Trader Joe’s has cut back on store hours.

“For a while we just literally had no food to put on the shelves. We all did extra cleaning and left early because there was nothing to stock,” Pietropaoli said. “Pretty much what I’m doing now is working the bare minimum because I’m doing fine financially. They’ve been cutting hours and I’ve been worried about my co-workers for who this is a full-time job.”

While Trader Joe’s has not increased wages for employees who are still working, it has offered increased paid sick leave.

“To better support each Crew Member in making community-minded decisions, since March 2nd we have been providing up to two weeks of additional paid sick time to Crew Members who have any symptoms of illness,” the company says on its website.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s say they have also enacted enhanced cleaning protocols at their stores.

The pressure of working at one of the few businesses open to the public has been challenging, as social distancing restrictions have continued to remain in place for weeks.

“It is a pretty intense feeling,” Posey said. “As somebody who came into work at a grocery store for the first time, this is one of the most important positions that I feel like I’ve had.”

Many workers are hoping that their employers will begin paying more attention to their safety on the job, and others are still adjusting to an unfamiliar, and, yes, essential role.

“As long as there’s a mutual respect between me and the customers, I feel like I’ll be doing this as long as I have to,” Posey said.


Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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