Grocery store workers are worried about personal safety

Steve Lackmeyer The Oklahoman

Grocery employees across the country are feeling stressed, overworked and are seeing co-workers get sick and in some cases dying as customers continue wiping out store shelves due to the pandemic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union reported Monday more than 3,000 grocery employees have been directly affected by COVID-19, while the Washington Post reports at least 41 have died.

Chains confirming worker deaths due to the virus include Walmart and Trader Joe’s. Union President Marc Perrone announced that a digital and television advertising campaign is being launched to educate customers of the threats they pose to employee health.

”The coronavirus pandemic represents the greatest health and safety crisis that America’s grocery and food workers have ever faced,” Perrone said. “While tens of millions of Americans were told to work from home for their safety, grocery store and food workers have never had that option. More must be done to protect them and our food supply now.”

According to a survey conducted by the union of its members, 96% are concerned about being exposed to the virus while at work. Surveyed workers described themselves as “scared,” “anxious,” “worried” and “stressed,” Perrone said.

Perrone singled out Instacart for requiring workers to get a test confirming they have the virus before they qualify for sick leave. He said other grocers had required employees to reuse masks until they get dirty, or didn’t provide customers pick-up or delivery options, resulting in lines of people at their doors.

Instacart did not respond to requests for comment.

Some stores, Perrone added, are not providing protective masks and gloves to employees either by choice or they are struggling to keep them in stock. Until the CDC released revised recommendations on use of masks, some stores forbid employees from wearing them due to concerns of creating the appearance they were sick.

Customers’ behavior and habits were cited as top concerns among grocery workers in the nearly 900,000 member union. In the survey, 29% said they had been treated somewhat or very poorly, 41% support the hiring of more store security, and 49% support stores banning unruly customers.

Of particular concern to Perrone were reports by 11% of those surveyed saying they had to call police over customer behavior and 9% who reported seeing violence or fighting among customers.

‘Careless customers’

At the same time, grocery employees who spoke with reporters Monday thanked customers who are treating them as essential workers and praising them for their service. But even then, they said, customers are not aware their habits need to change starting with wearing masks when they shop.

Dusty Gearhard shared stories of customers bringing children with them to shop, not practicing social distancing and discarding hazardous materials in carts and parking lots.

Some, he said, are rushing meat carts as meat is about to be stocked in cases.

“We’re not used to this volume,” Gearhard said. “We have blizzards, holidays and storms. But this is continuous. We’re working hard, and our workers are scared of catching this virus.”

Gearhard, an employee of Oklahoma City-based Homeland, pleaded to customers to change their shopping habits.

“Customers need to shop with their eyes and not their hands,” Gearhard said. “They will touch a lot of items looking for dates, pulling items from the back. And they’re looking for bunker items, going through the back of the meat section, and then we have to go back and sort through it.”

He said customers are blaming employees for items being out of stock when the shortage is due to distribution or supplier disruptions.

Customers also are failing to properly dispose of gloves and masks.

“I see a lot of them in the parking lot and in the shopping carts,” Gearhard said.

Homeland is part of a 78-store chain located in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Georgia. Homeland is the largest banner in the company, while others include Food World, Piggy Wiggly, Country Mart, United, Cash Saver, Super Save and Food Pyramid.

CEO Marc Jones said changes at all of the stores include limiting shoppers to one per cart, discouraging family shopping, limiting the number of customers inside a store and using floor decals to guide one-way directions on aisles.

The chain is assigning store monitors to ensure limits on shoppers allowed inside are followed. The stores also are providing sanitized shopping carts for customers.

The chain already implemented many of the changes suggested Monday, including additional “Hero Pay” of $100 a week to hourly store employees through mid-May and paid time off for those testing positive for COVID-19 and those who miss work due to the virus and quarantines.

“All employees who want to wear masks should have them available,” Jones said. “We have surgical masks available today and an increasing number of cloth masks, many of which have been locally made within our communities. We even have face shields arriving in some stores as early as tomorrow.”

Homeland was one of the first stores in the metro area to install plexiglass sneeze guards in high customer contact areas such as front ends, customer service counters and pharmacies.

Perrone cautioned that while the sneeze guards are helpful, new studies show the aerosol spray of a cough or sneeze can extend 21 feet over multiple aisles.

With so many cases of people contagious but asymptomatic with the virus, Perrone urges customers to all wear masks and gloves. Customers, he said, must be more aware of the threat they pose to each other and to workers when they don’t take such precautions.

“There are definitely careless customers,” Jones said. “And the careless customers are the biggest threat right now.”