Despite an early week rollout of enhanced measures to improve social distancing at QFC stores during the coronavirus crisis, some employees complained that self-checkout registers less than six feet apart continued to operate at full volume.
Employees at the QFC in Broadway Market in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood said the store’s manager, Jillian Boone, chided staffers last week for attempting to close some of the “u-scan” machines to create more space between customers. Boone also posted a memo to staffers last week — a copy of which was obtained by The Seattle Times — telling them social distancing “will not always work.”
“The aisle ways are narrow, the uscans are close together, the check stands are close together,” the memo says. “What I need all of you to understand is that our best defense is to try to get the customers through our front ends as quick as possible … if we only open every other uscan then that means that all of those customers are bottle necked on the back end and still not 6 ft. apart from each other.’’
The memo, which was signed “Jill” and that employees said was still posted in a staff break room mid-week, adds: “What this comes down to is that all of us have a responsibility to work in the same manner we always have, and as long as we do that then we are doing our part.’’
One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed concern that Boone was making up her own policy contrary to social distancing guidelines and risking the health of staff members and customers. Reached Friday, Boone declined to comment and referred The Times to QFC spokeswoman Tiffany Sanders at the chain’s corporate office in Bellevue.
“The health and safety of our customers and associates is our top priority,” Sanders said in a statement to The Times after this story published. “Stores have been told to use every other self checkout kiosk. Many customers are choosing self checkout to avoid having people touch their items. If a line forms at self check out it is up to the discretion of the manager to get people out quickly according to CDC health guidelines.”
QFC and Fred Meyer – both owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger — announced this week they were addressing potential bottlenecking in register wait lines by spacing floor decals six feet apart that advise customers where to stand.
They’ve also begun using technology that tracks how many people are inside stores and ensures no more than 50% capacity is reached.
Besides the checkout line stickers, “one way’’ floor decals attempt to keep traffic flowing in one direction in various aisles. Shoppers headed in the wrong direction are told to “Stop’’ by additional floor stickers.
The measures came during a week when supermarket chains nationwide begin reporting their first employee deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Though more than 40 states have ordered nonessential businesses to close and residents to stay home, supermarkets are among retailers that remain open and thousands of employees have reported for work amid rising U.S. infections and deaths.
Dozens of grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and many say they lack the protective gear to deal with hundreds of customers daily.
Labor unions had complained ahead of this week’s changes by Kroger that supermarkets weren’t adequately protecting employees. Beyond adding one-way aisles and distancing stickers, Kroger has also installed plastic partitions at some registers and is allowing staffers to wear masks and other protective gear.
But effective social distancing remains a challenge.
The Times last week heard from employees who said they were concerned about too many self-checkout registers being kept open at an Eastside QFC. When some employees tried closing every second machine, they were ordered to reopen them.
After some complained to their union, management discussions were held and the store closed every other machine this week to create more spacing when the enhanced measures were implemented.
Sanders, the QFC spokeswoman, said in her statement that QFC is “trying to balance the need to get customers in and out of the store quickly. While we keep every other self check out open, during busy times we will open additional kiosks to get customers out quickly to eliminate close contact extending beyond 10 minutes.”
At the QFC in Magnolia on Friday afternoon, every second self-checkout machine was closed, as were those at the Fred Meyer in Ballard. At a nearby Safeway, similar one-way aisles and distancing stickers were in place; the self-checkout machines — spaced more than six feet apart before the virus outbreak — remained unchanged.
But when The Times visited the QFC store in Capitol Hill managed by Boone on Friday morning, all of the self-checkout stands appeared to be open and customers were crowding within six feet of one another.
The line of shoppers waiting for machines appeared adequately spaced because of the floor stickers. But a QFC employee directing shoppers to the units told one woman to use a machine directly next to two other shoppers already positioned side by side as they bagged groceries — even with several available machines nearby.
The employee then watched as the three shoppers stood side by side, less than six feet apart from one another, while completing their purchases. At one point, the employee, who wasn’t wearing a facial covering, was asked for help by one of the customers and stood less than two feet away while answering questions.