Taking a Stand So That Others Might Sit

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, January 21, 2007

D eana Jordan Sullivan's 4-year-old son, Benjamin, posed the question: Why is it that the women at the cash registers at Safeway stand up, but cashiers at the cafeteria in his father's workplace sit on stools?

Sullivan didn't have an answer for her boy, and the more she thought about it, the more it bothered her that supermarket checkout clerks have to stand all day. "I go in there every day, and the cashiers know everybody and talk to everybody, and I've always been touched by the interactions," she says.

So on Christmas Eve, Sullivan went to Ikea, bought seven stools and delivered them to her local Safeway on Connecticut Avenue in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood. The gift set her back more than $150, but Sullivan was pleased to make the gesture. "I really wanted the cashiers to know that the people who shop here aren't just people who don't care," she says.

Four weeks later, the stools are sitting in storage, and Sullivan is still waiting to hear what will become of them.

She needn't wait any longer: Safeway won't let its cashiers sit down. Sullivan "can come by and pick them up so she can return them or donate them to charity," says Craig Muckle, a spokesman for the supermarket chain.

"We do appreciate the customer's thoughtfulness and generosity," he says. "But sitting on a chair could potentially expose employees to injury. Part of their job requires them to lift heavy objects -- laundry detergent, frozen or fresh turkeys, cat or dog food. Their checkstands are designed to be conducive to standing."

Actually, although you wouldn't think the seating of supermarket cashiers would be an earth-splitting issue, the planet is indeed divided over this: In most European countries and in Australia, grocery checkout clerks routinely do their job perched on stools. In the United States, the tradition has been that they stand all day. And it turns out that this has more to do with image and notions of customer service than with worker health.

The British government's occupational health department issued guidelines in 2005 strongly recommending that supermarket cashiers be given sit-stand stools so clerks could sit when not lifting those heavy items. "A seat should be provided enabling operators to have a choice," the British study concluded.

A report by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that thousands of grocery store workers are injured each year by repetitive motions and awkward posture while scanning items and "standing for most of the shift." But Americans take a milder approach to solving the problem. OSHA recommends using anti-fatigue floor mats, which Safeway does provide.

The feds add only that grocery stores should "consider using checkstands designed with an adjustable sit-stand" stool.

Muckle says Safeway's checkstands are not designed to permit stools. Anyway, "culturally, I don't know of any American supermarket where checkers sit down," he says. "That is prevalent in Europe, but in our culture, if people saw that, a lot of people would wonder, 'Are these people really working?' "

Interestingly, the union that represents Safeway checkers is pretty much in accord with the company. "Safeway designs checkstands to be as ergonomically beneficial as possible," says union spokeswoman Jill Cashen. "Sitting may actually make the work more difficult."

But in other stores where cashiers lift heavy items, sitting seems to work just fine. Wal-Mart, for example, has no company-wide policy on stools, though managers at some stores recently started banning cashiers from sitting, according to news reports. Some store managers and investment analysts said the change was part of an effort to nudge out older workers and replace them with younger, lower-paid employees; Wal-Mart executives denied any such scheme.

At her Safeway, Sullivan found the cashiers to be grateful but a bit wary when she delivered the stools. "They looked at me like I was a crazy white woman," she says, "and that's a reasonable reaction. It sounds like I'm obsessed with this, but I'm really not: I'm a busy working mom with two kids, but I just thought this was stupid. I didn't want to just whine about it, so I did something."

Sullivan, an executive at Discovery Networks, isn't done rocking the boat. She's rallying support from neighborhood online bulletin boards. And even though her stools remain in storage, she's found herself shopping at the Safeway more often: "Ironically, it's making me more loyal to the store and to the people who work there."

Cashiers at the store told me they weren't allowed to talk about the stools. But they smiled broadly at the mention of the seats and the woman who donated them. "Tell her to come in and see us," one clerk said.

Another added: "We'll be here -- standing right here."

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


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