Grocery clerks get a new title: Emergency responders

Why We Wrote This

They’re in some of the lowest-paid occupations, yet the stockers and cashiers in food stores do tasks that are indispensable to life in a modern society. Now that’s being recognized in a way that often isn’t.

Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register/AP
Fleur Fareway grocery manager Andrew DeGroote helps check out shoppers during an hour designated for those who could be more susceptible to the coronavirus on March 19, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Every day the nation’s 3 million food store workers deliver the goods, stock the shelves, and ring up the sales that keep America fed. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has thrust them in a new light as they keep supermarkets open while other stores close down.

They’re front-line workers in a national emergency that almost no one has experienced before. And they’re being thanked and recognized.

This week, the governors of Minnesota and Michigan designated grocery employees as emergency workers, which makes their children eligible for free care at schools. 

In St. Louis and Washington state, labor unions and stores have agreed on providing special health care, scheduling, or pay provisions related to the outbreak. They’re also smoothing the way for faster hiring during the emergency.

Increased sales – and especially panic-buying of staples like toilet paper – have strained not just workers in the stores but those delivering the goods.

“It’s brave of them being in contact with a lot of people,” says Arian, one of the grateful customers leaving a supermarket in New York.

Every day the nation’s 3 million food-store workers deliver the goods, stock the shelves, and ring up the sales that keep America fed. Only now, the coronavirus pandemic has thrust them in a new light as they keep supermarkets open while other stores close down and offices empty out. They’re front-line workers in a national emergency that almost no one has experienced before, first responders of food who are finding a sudden outpouring of thanks.

“People have been appreciative, thanking us for being open,” says Jim, an employee at Market Basket in the Boston suburb of Waltham, waiting to go home on the bus.

“It’s brave of them being in contact with a lot of people,” says Arian, a customer carrying a bag of milk, eggs, and yogurt from the Cherry Valley Farm Supermarket in Queens, New York. (Neither man would give his last name).

In the past week, their work has spawned letters to the editor. “These workers are often under-appreciated, and these days their work environment – now including risk of exposure to the virus and dealing with worried and cranky customers – is certainly more challenging than usual,” Deborah van den Honert wrote in a letter to the editor of the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera published Monday.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

Now, these workers at the low end of America’s pay scale are getting formal recognition. This week, the governors of three states – Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont – designated grocery employees as emergency workers, which makes their children eligible for free care at schools.

In St. Louis, the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and grocers agreed to change the health and welfare fund so employees would not have copays for coronavirus tests, would get more short-term disability, and would get 90% of their pay when diagnosed with the virus. In addition, the union agreed to waive dues and fees for 45 days for new employees to help grocers hire more workers.

In Washington state, UFCW and Teamsters have reached an agreement with Safeway/Albertsons and Fred Meyer/QFC grocery chains to continue paying for up to two weeks workers who had to stay home because they were diagnosed with the virus or ordered to self-quarantine. The chains have also agreed to schedule workers more flexibly so they can get more overtime if they want it or have time off to take care of children at home, even using paid sick leave when staying home with them. In exchange, the chains can hire workers faster.

“Everyone is really stepping up to the plate here,” says Tom Geiger, special projects director for UFCW Local 21 in Seattle, in an email. “This is going to make it easier for workers and shoppers to stay healthier and get better during the pandemic.”

Hours have gotten longer and the work harder because of the crush of customers who are now eating predominantly at home and stocking up on toilet paper, bottled water, and hand sanitizer. 

“It’s been hectic, crazy,” says Christian Rodriguez, a manager of the Cherry Valley Farm Supermarket in Queens. “But overall, we’re prepared, pretty much. We expected it to get like this.”

Many grocery chains around the country also extended hours this week, while others have reduced operating hours to allow workers to restock shelves without customers. Some have created “senior only” shopping hours for those anxious about shopping in crowded stores. 

Increased sales – and especially panic-buying of staples like toilet paper – have strained not just workers in the stores but those delivering the goods.

With sales volumes running two and three times the norm at certain locations, SpartanNash, a food distribution company outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, said this week it was hiring displaced workers and students to keep its own stores and independent grocers in its 14-state distribution network adequately supplied. On Monday, Amazon said it would hire an extra 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers and temporarily boost their pay $2 an hour through April to deal with the surge of online sales.

“It’s very, very different in the past week,” says Lisa, a flex driver for Amazon in North Carolina, who declined to have her full name published. “The stores are very very panicky, very overwhelmed, unprepared.”

Typically, she picks up goods at Whole Foods and distribution centers and delivers them to customers. She has taken to wearing black nitrile gloves, which she sanitizes often. The tips from customers in the past week have been generous, she adds. 

“I don’t feel like I’m putting myself or my family in any particular danger any more so than, say, going to Walmart,” she says. “Somebody has to [deliver], and why not me?”

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