Walk into many grocery stores these days, and you’ll see two things: crowds and empty shelves. You may also notice narrow aisles and checkout lines that make it hard to practice the social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While many businesses are shutting down to help stop the spread of COVID-19, grocery stores don’t have that luxury. And grocery workers like cashiers don’t make that much - at most, around $15 an hour. But like health care workers, they’re considered essential.
Inside the Village Market in Incline Village, Nevada, Bill Presswood, the grocery manager, said, “My employees, I’ll tell ya, have been great. I can’t commend them enough.”
Presswood said his store has implemented new cleaning standards, added hand sanitizer stations, and even hired two new people to help out wiping down shopping carts and door handles.
“In all these years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Pam Djonne, one of the store’s cashiers.
She said no one really knows what’s going to happen next, so their only option is to clean as much as possible.
“Until they really continue the research and find some sort of treatment or vaccine that’s effective, this is the best we can do,” she said.
Djonne said she’s never even questioned whether or not she should show up for work, even though she says she and her husband are both considered high-risk.
“The community here, they need people to be here at the store,” she said. “Everyone needs supplies and groceries.”
Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there’s nothing unique about grocery stores in terms of disease transmission, except that “it’s just a place we have to go, so there’s that potential to be in contact with other people.”
“For the people working there, any risk would be dealing directly with customers,” Labus said. “So, if you’re touching items that they’re touching, something on the checkout machine, or you’re handing money back and forth, things like that, those kinds of things can be contaminated with a virus and be passed on to the worker that’s there.”
Because of that added risk, some grocery store workers are lobbying for extra protection — and grocers are beginning to respond. Boise, Idaho-based grocery chain Albertson’s announced Friday it’s offering all hourly employees appreciation pay of $2 more an hour for at least two weeks. As Civil Eats reports, some grocery stores in Southern California agreed to pay employees $2 more per hour, and unions there are negotiating for hazard pay. And the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union is demanding, among other things, hazard pay for workers and free COVID-19 testing. Trader Joe’s has reportedly already offered their employees bonuses.
Dan Kalish, a managing partner at HKM Employment Attorneys, said unionizing might be the only way grocery store workers can gain further protections during the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you don’t have a collective bargaining agreement or separate agreement for hazard pay, then generally no local, state or federal law really provides it at this time,” Kalish said.
Protections for grocery store workers generally come in three forms: union contracts, laws, and companies’ goodwill. Without a collective bargaining agreement or protections in statute, many grocery store workers will be left relying on the generosity of their bosses, Kalish said.
“These are employees that have been working for these companies for years, often assisting them in phenomenal profits in the last five years,” he said. “We would hope that the companies would come back and provide some assistance to employees in such hardship and in such difficult times.”
For cashiers like Pam Djonne on the front lines, it’s the uncertainty that makes this more difficult.
“The customers, the employees, all of us, we’re all concerned, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said.
And so they’re left with the guidance we’ve all been given: Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your face and maintain at least six feet of distance between people.
All of which is a bit harder when you’re busy working at the local supermarket.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.