As a cashier at a Safeway grocery store in Alexandria, Va., Michelle Lee says the store is still too busy.
It’s calmed down a little from peak panic buying, but the 51-year old estimates that 1,500 to 2,000 shoppers still come through the store each day, some of whom are coughing or not wearing masks.
She recently found out the store would be limiting the amount of customers allowed entry at any given time. She was expecting the number to be about 20 to 30, she said. Instead, she was told the limit would be 200.
“Two hundred at a time is still too many,” Lee said.
In interviews with about a dozen grocery workers across the U.S., the word that came up over and over was “unsafe.”
Across the country, grocery workers are falling ill from covid-19. At least four deaths have been reported so far, shaking up a group of workers that have long gone underappreciated and are some of the lowest paid essential workers.
“Our members are exposed to hundreds of people a day, thousands of people a week,” said Jonathan Williams, communications director for UFCW Local 400 — the union that represents food workers in Maryland, Washington D.C. and Virginia.
The union wants grocery workers to be classified as first responders, so that they can more easily access personal protective equipment (PPE) and covid-19 tests, Williams said.
Last week D.C. opened testing for first responders, and the number of reported cases is climbing. For many grocery workers, the only way to access sick leave is a positive coronavirus test.
“I’m not saying we need to be first in line,” Williams said. “We just need to get in line. ”
“People risk their lives for less than $15 an hour,” Williams said, noting that about 57 percent of his region’s membership is comprised of women. “They are making a huge sacrifice so the rest of us can live our lives.”
Albertsons, Safeway’s parent company, is in the process of sourcing masks for “all front-line associates,” Beth Goldberg, senior manager of community and public affairs at Safeway, wrote in an email.
Starting April 10, “our stores will limit occupancy levels to one person per 150 square feet during normal business hours and one person per 300 square feet during special hours reserved for seniors and other vulnerable customers,” Goldberg wrote in response to questions about Lee’s concerns regarding her store’s shopper limits.
In addition, “Safeway stores are posting signs at entrances and in backrooms that asks everyone who visits our stores to performs a self-screening before shopping or clocking in,” Goldberg wrote. Thermometers will not be made available.
Even at stores in which employees feel well-provided for, safety concerns are constant.
Amber Gregory, 37, works at New Seasons Market, a high-end grocery chain that competes with Whole Foods in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.
“I feel lucky working where I do,” she said, adding that her Oregon store has taken “more health and social distancing measures than anyone.”
Her company provides masks, gloves, sanitizer and wipes. But still, there’s just a general unease about the grocery experience during the pandemic. Gregory’s employer has suspended the attendance policy and encourages workers to take mental health days.
Customers come in and chat to share their fears. “It’s nice because you feel a connection. But at the same time, it can bring you further down,” she said.
Gregory feels sorry for workers at other stores who are less protected, who work without masks or the sanitation measures her store has adopted.
“Now it feels like we’re stuck in a petri dish, even though we sanitize the carts between every use. I go through a box of gloves every shift. You do your best. But it feels like an unsafe place.”
Since our last guide for shopping, store policies, like everything else, have changed.
Here are some things to keep in mind while you shop — to help keep workers — and you — safe.
1. Shop as infrequently as possible. No more than once per week.
“I really want to see that cart overflowing,” said Kris Jones, a store manager in Phoenix. “Some customers come three or four times a week and pick up a couple cookies or snack items. It’s their mental health break, and they feel like it’s ‘safe’ because you’re allowed to go to the store. Stay home. It’s not safe.”
2. Don’t push back
“If we tell you there’s a rule, there’s a rule, and it’s for your safety,” Gregory said. “Our state just said no reusable bags or containers in the store. … We get yelled at, screamed at, people throw their bags down and leave.”
Jones said women often shoulder the brunt of customer abuse.
“If a 250-pound guy tells you to stand here, most people will,” she said. “But one of the female cashiers asked a man to stand back, and he dropped the f-bomb,’ yelling, ‘Don’t act like I’m going to make you sick!’”
3. Stop paying with cash
“Every time someone hands you cash, you feel like you want to run and wash your hands, and that’s impossible,” Jones said.
Use a card or your phone to pay, when possible.
4. Leave the kids at home (if possible)
“If you’re a single mom, that’s one thing. But if there’s another adult in the house you can leave the kids with, leave them home,” Jones said. “We see two women come in together, bringing multiple kids, and they’re running around, touching everything and picking up things. … It can get them sick and get others sick.”
New Seasons Markets, where Gregory works, has a policy of one adult per family.
“The store used to be a fun place, Gregory said. “But we’ve shut down everything that made it fun. The hot bar, the deli, the bar. Now it’s utilitarian. It’s sustenance. It’s not entertainment.”
5. Share positive feedback. You may be able to do this through the store’s website.
“Often times the websites ask you to choose which store location is yours, so any praise you want to share goes directly to us and our managers. Especially if you remember the employee(s) who helped you. We’ve got name tags, after all,” Scott wrote.
“In my store we even have a big board in our break room with emails and handwritten postcards pinned up from customers sharing their positive experiences and thanking us for being here every day for them. It means the world,” Scott said.
6. Throw your gloves, sanitizer bottles and masks in the trash or take it home with you