Update, 10:20 a.m. March 18: Since this story was published, an employee at the Trader Joe’s branch on Roosevelt Way has tested positive for COVID-19. … Target has also joined Uwajimaya and Safeway in dedicating a weekly shopping time for the elderly and shoppers with compromised immune systems: in this case, the first hour of each day. (Check Target’s website for specific opening hours of the different locations throughout the greater Seattle area.)


Original story, March 17: Customers can be angry and rude. Hoarding is rampant and fights occasionally break out. Hours are longer than usual and filled with more of everything, especially stress. People show up openly sick, coughing and sniffling and touching. And the shelves empty as fast as you can fill them.

There’s a siege mentality among a growing number of grocery-store employees, who feel vulnerable as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads. As schools, restaurants and bars close, some feel trapped in one of the only places left where Washingtonians can now legally gather in large numbers: the grocery store.

The state issued new guidelines last week meant to help food-service employees during the outbreak. And over the weekend, Safeway, one of the country’s biggest grocery chains, reached an agreement with the union that represents thousands of grocery-store workers in Washington to provide up to two weeks’ pay for workers diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or who are required to self-quarantine. But that didn’t do much to assuage the feeling many grocery-store workers have: that the focus is on keeping the public safe, with little regard for employees who can be exposed to thousands of people a day. Some have said their managers have barred them from wearing masks or gloves because it would look bad.

“We’ve increased cleaning the register areas with disinfectant wipes and some of us wear gloves, but there is still a sense of unease due to the nonstop assembly-line feel of the store lately,” said a Trader Joe’s employee who requested anonymity because he fears losing his job. “We are always pretty busy normally, but now with even more customers constantly coming in and out, the odds we contract the virus feels very real. We are basically trapped in this closed environment, potentially being exposed.

“Half of the employees seem to be blowing this off and some, like me, fear the worst is yet to come.”

Grocery-store workers make up one of the largest workforces in the state. But it’s also one of the most vulnerable, with many working part-time or nonunion jobs. During the pandemic, the stress has been amped up. It’s like the holidays on amphetamines, but for weeks on end. Some are quitting rather than expose themselves, leaving more work for those left behind.

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The situation is evolving as stores continue to find new ways to cope with the increase in customer traffic. Safeway and Albertsons stores in Washington announced via a news release Tuesday that they have created hours for at-risk shoppers such as those who are older, pregnant or with compromised immune systems — from 7-9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Uwajimaya Seattle also announced Tuesday that it will dedicate 8-9 a.m. daily to older shoppers only.

But unless U.S. supermarkets take a page from the playbooks of stores in China or Italy and begin limiting hours or restricting the number of shoppers allowed in the store at a time, there’s no sign conditions will improve for workers.

“People are going to keep needing food,” the Trader Joe’s employee said. “It’s such a weird feeling when you come to work. It’s like walking into a minefield.”

The situation is so stressful that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 44,000 employees in Washington — 21,000 of whom work in grocery stores — has been working toward getting state and federal governments to include grocery-store workers in the same class as firefighters, EMTs and police in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think grocery-store workers are used to being first responders,” said Sarah Cherin, UFCW Local 21 chief of staff. “If you think about our snowstorm [in 2019], when you think about things like this pandemic, grocery-store workers are the front line, just like health care workers.”

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New guidelines for food-industry workers that the state issued last week basically call for increased sanitation efforts, such as wiping down public surfaces and self-service stations more often and ensuring employees don’t touch food as they are preparing and serving it. The guidelines also say employers should consider retraining workers in sanitary practices and expanding options for paid time off options for employees.

“And while we feel like the guidelines are helpful,” Cherin said, “we would certainly invite more conversations about how they can be stronger. We don’t think our grocery stores should shut down. I think people need grocery stores in this moment. They need them to be open late. We’re definitely having conversations with our employers and with government folks about how to make sure that our first responders are being kept safe.”

Becky Fox Marshall, social media and advertising manager for Town & Country Markets, said adapting has been a challenge. Not only are there added duties due to precautions — employees now wipe the keypads down after each customer use, for instance — but there are unexpected complications.

“There are so many layers to it,” she said. “It’s about keeping the doors open and keeping our customers safe, and keeping our employees from getting exhausted. Now with schools closed, that’s another layer to it because they have child care problems, I’m sure. And what we’re doing, the steps that we’re taking in the stores, just take more labor.”

Cherin said child care has become the biggest issue for her membership. The closure of schools doesn’t affect those who are telecommuting or self-quarantining as much as those who must still work a shift. Cherin recently helped negotiate the deal with Safeway, which will improve working conditions for tens of thousands of its employees across the state.

More on the coronavirus outbreak

Safeway agreed over the weekend, according to a Monday news release, to cover up to two weeks’ pay for workers diagnosed with COVID-19 or required to self-quarantine before needing to use sick leave or other paid time off, according to a news release from the union. The grocer also agreed to allow more flexibility in scheduling to accommodate child care, and expanded paid sick leave to cover child care needs, to set up a child-care fund for employees and to continue discussions about the issue.

Cherin said the union is in negotiations with Kroger, Town & Country Markets, PCC Markets and Metropolitan Markets to implement similar standards.

“The health of our employees and their families is a top priority as we navigate through this critical time for our stores in their communities,” Safeway spokesperson Sara Osborne said in a statement. “We were pleased to work with UFCW 21 on efforts to provide some relief to our employees who have been taking on extra shifts and long hours.”

Osborne said Safeway is working in bring in more employees, and to collaborate with state and federal government organizations to get child care funding for their employees.

Hilary Karasz, public information officer with Public Health – Seattle & King County, said she knows some people feel like they’re being left out of the government’s response. But in such a crisis, there are few certainties.

“We are all going to need to pull together to come up with creative solutions to new situations,” she said. “Every store and facility is different, so employers are going to have to try to work out what’s best for their facility and their workflow. We will continue to work on developing guidance that we hope will be helpful for all the sectors that we serve.

“We wish we already had all this guidance developed, but we are in unprecedented times.”

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Here are a few recommendations for making your grocery shopping trip pleasant – for everyone:

 

  • If you’re sick – with anything – stay home.
  • Try to shop at off-peak hours to avoid lines – both making and standing in them. Early in the morning and late at night are both good times to avoid crowds.
  • Consider delivery or pickup to decrease the number of people you interact with.
  • Use a card, not cash, to avoid unnecessary contact.
  • Be kind. You are not the only person stressed out.
  • No hoarding. Don’t be that person. The supply chain is safe.

 

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