When Stocking Grocery Shelves Turns Dangerous

They are a new class of emergency medical workers: the more than two million Americans reporting to work each day to sell food and other household staples to a country in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

As shoppers swarm stores, snapping up everything from milk to toilet paper, cashiers are there to ring them out. Stockroom employees replenish shelves as soon as shipments arrive. Their presence is a source of calm, signifying that, even as demand has surged, supply chains remain intact and the essentials that people need remain available.

“Workers in food stores are the ones keeping this nation from going into civil unrest,” said John T. Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the United Food & Commercial Workers, which represents 16,000 food workers in New York and New Jersey, including those at ShopRite and Key Food. “Because if there is no one working in the stores, we are in trouble.”

But these same employees are tired and, because they constantly interact with customers, fearful of getting sick themselves. Workers at a number of retailers say they are being denied medical supplies like protective masks and gloves, because their employers insist the gear is unnecessary and could stoke fears among customers.

Amy Askelson, a grocery worker in Kalamazoo, Mich., said she uses hand sanitizer after each interaction with a customer. Ms. Askelson, 36, feels vulnerable. She has multiple sclerosis, meaning her immune system is impaired. And she worries about passing the virus to her 72-year-old mother, who has been helping take care of her children.

“I’m going to work every day with the general public and coming over to look at my kids, and I know I’m giving her those germs,” said Ms. Askelson, who declined to name her employer because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “We’re supposed to be standing six feet away, but I work in the self-checkout where you have to be right next to the customer.”

Many grocery employees say they have been working 70 hours a week since the virus set off more than two straight weeks of panic buying across the country. The more people crowding into stores, the greater the chance that employees will be exposed to the virus.

These workers do not have the option of working from home. “I have to take two trains to work,” said Cornelia Rodriguez, 21, a cashier at Food Universe Marketplace in New York, who is mainly worried about her young child at home.

At some Trader Joe’s stores, managers have told employees not to wear gloves, according to a group of workers attempting to unionize at the chain.

“This isn’t the time for companies to get so dazzled by profits they forget to listen to the people who make them profitable,” the labor group wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “Crew members are putting their lives at risk to serve our communities. We aren’t numbers in a spreadsheet.”

At grocery stores, the surge in buying has shown no signs of slowing and tensions have risen. Customers have also lashed out at grocery workers, angrily complaining about the bare shelves. At the WinCo store where he works in Southern California, Jonathan Wright, 28, said a customer threated to kill one of his co-workers if she did not let him into the store.

“When they finally get in, and they see the shelves are empty at least with stuff that they want, that’s when they panic and that’s when the questions start coming,” Mr. Wright said.

Many workers say a big part of their job now is to project a sense of calm and order. At the Morton Williams Supermarket at Third Avenue and 63rd Street in Manhattan, the store manager, Yesenia Alvarado, is constantly sanitizing, cleaning, restocking and making sure employees are washing their hands. Cashiers are making an effort to greet shoppers with a smile.

“I’m not worried,” Ms. Alvarado said. “First of all, I’m a mom — of three boys — I know chaos. If I don’t panic, everything is good.”

State officials are starting to recognize the importance of grocery workers in the pandemic. Minnesota has designated the employees as essential workers, on par with nurses, doctors and police. That would allow them to travel freely in the event of road closures. In Vermont, grocery workers are now eligible for state-provided child care.

Retailers and food distributors are also trying to expand the pool of available cashiers, produce pickers and warehouse workers in an effort to spell exhausted employees and create backup in case of widespread illnesses.

Unions representing food store workers, such as the U.F.C.W., are actively recruiting workers laid off this week from department stores and clothing retailers that have shut down for the foreseeable future.

Walmart, the nation’s largest food retailer, said late Thursday that it was looking to hire 150,000 new employees in its stores and distribution centers through the end of May, which would represent a nearly 10 percent increase in its work force. The company is also providing hourly workers with cash bonuses of up to $300.

The parent company of Dollar Tree and Family Dollar discount stores is looking to add 25,000 new workers.

United Natural Food Inc, one of the nation’s largest food distributor to grocery stores, said on Thursday that it was providing most of its 21,000 workers a $2 an hour “state of emergency bonus” on top of their wages and overtime through the end of the month. U.N.F.I. warehouse workers earn roughly $14 to $28 an hour, depending on the state they work in.

Some retailers have reduced store hours in an attempt to slow down the shopping sprees, and give workers time to restock shelves and prevent burnout. For the second time in a week, Walmart said it was opening stores later and closing earlier, — a significant scaling back for a retailer that is relied on for 24-hour service and whose business is booming amid the crisis. On Thursday, Walmart’s shares were trading at near a five-year high.

For all the praise and raises being heaped on the workers, many food sellers have been reluctant to provide them with personal protective gear.

Walmart, which employs 1.5 million people in the United States, is not providing masks and gloves in its stores because, a company spokesman said, it was following guidelines from the Center for Disease Control, which do not explicitly recommend them for workers outside the medical profession.

A spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s, Kenya Friend-Daniel, said the cha
in’s employees “may choose to” wear gloves, though she noted that the C.D.C. guidelines do not call for them. At Stop & Stop, a grocery chain with hundreds of stores in the Northeast, employees are now being provided with gloves, but not masks.

Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said the company’s rationale is twofold: There is a more critical need for masks in hospitals and health care facilities, and they send the wrong message to already jittery shoppers that the worker is ill.

The chain is also “strongly advising” workers not to wear their own masks, she said. The union representative, Mr. Niccollai, called masks a “double-edged sword.” They could heighten fears, he said, which would make it more challenging for the workers to deal with customers.

Stop & Shop says it is taking other measures to protect workers, including breaks every 30 minutes or so for the employees to wash their hands. The company, Ms. Brogan noted, is also providing a one-time discount of 15 percent if employees want to personally stock up on food. (They typically receive a 5 percent discount.) “It’s a way to say thank you,” she said.

George Perez, 38, the manager at the two-year-old Food Universe Marketplace on Steinway Street in the New York City borough of Queens, has been in supermarkets all my life, really, ever since I was a kid stocking shelves with my dad.”

“On a personal level I’m worried about my health, too, but at the end of the day, what we’re doing is important to a lot of people so it’s a sacrifice we have to make,” Mr. Perez said. Nearly all of his employees, he added, have shown up for work every day.

His staff, said Mr. Perez, is like a second family, and he’s figuring out what to do for them when things go back to normal. “The most important people are the guys upstairs,” he said from his basement supply room. “Without them, who knows where this neighborhood would be?”

David Gelles contributed reporting.

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