“We’ve lost our hazard pay, and people are quitting every day,” said Manners, 43, who processes vendor deliveries at a Meijer store in northern Kentucky. “Those of us who are left are really stretched thin — working so much harder for $11.50 an hour.”
Grocery workers across the country say morale is crushingly low as the pandemic wears on with no end in sight. Overwhelmed employees are quitting mid-shift. Those who remain say they are overworked, taking on extra hours, enforcing mask requirements and dealing with hostile customers. Most retailers have done away with hazard pay even as workers remain vulnerable to infection, or worse. Employees who took sick leave at the beginning of the pandemic say they cannot afford to take unpaid time off now, even if they feel unwell.
The mounting despair is heightened by the lack of other job options: Supermarkets are among the few bright spots in an industry that has been ravaged by covid-related store closures and a sharp drop-off in consumer spending. The retail sector has shed 913,000 jobs and chalked up more than a dozen bankruptcies during the pandemic.
“At the beginning they valorized what was deemed a dead-end job, but four months later they don’t even treat us like humans anymore,” said Fox Wingate, 24, who works at a Safeway in Maryland.
Workers’ renewed sense of expendability comes after four straight months of double-digit unemployment. With as many as 30 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits, labor experts and economists say there is an ever-growing pool of desperate people willing to face hazardous conditions and low pay to put food on the table. The nation’s 2.7 million grocery workers make, on average, $13.20 an hour, or about $27,000 a year, Commerce Department data shows.
“These are jobs that already don’t pay enough for people to support themselves and their families,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “Now with a recession and unemployment being so high, it means that employers have even more of an upper hand — especially in an industry where a disproportionate number of workers are women and people of color.”
At least 130 U.S. grocery workers have died, and more than 8,200 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since late March, according to data from workers’ groups and media reports. Grocery stores are generally not required to inform shoppers about coronavirus cases or report them to local health departments, which can make it difficult to get an accurate count.
Manners, who has been at Meijer since 2010, says she has never felt so demoralized. At least a dozen colleagues in her department have quit in the past month alone, she says, while those who have stayed are struggling with the workload and the crush of impatient shoppers.
“Some customers were appreciative in the beginning, but now they’re just rude,” she said.
A handful of co-workers have tested positive for covid-19, Manners said, but anyone who decides to self-quarantine is typically directed to take unpaid leave. And workers who try to call in sick often are being coaxed to come in, she said.
“Managers are making decisions on their own, saying, ‘You have a cough but you’ll be okay,' ” said Manners, who is a union steward at her store. “You don’t want to say ‘no’ because you’ll lose your job.”
Frank Guglielmi, a spokesman for Meijer, said employees undergo temperature checks and other health screenings before each shift. Anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus or is considered high-risk can apply for as much as four weeks of paid leave, he said.
“For the record, we are seeing reduced turnover among our store team members,” he said. The turnover rate for U.S. retail workers has generally risen during the pandemic, Commerce Department data shows.
Adding to the stress, many workers say, are new responsibilities, including disinfecting store fixtures and enforcing social distancing and mask requirements.
Almost every major retailer, including Walmart, Home Depot and Target, is now asking shoppers to wear masks, although employees say enforcement is spotty and often fraught. Grocery workers have been demeaned, screamed at and even assaulted for reminding shoppers of the new protocols, with some of the most egregious incidents captured on video and shared online. Illinois this week made it a felony to assault workers who are enforcing mask requirements.
“The pressure is wearing away at us in great chunks,” said a mid-level manager at a Kroger store in Kentucky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job. “We’re getting it from both ends: customers and corporate.”
Company representatives, he said, are exerting more pressure to ensure shelves and displays are full, even though stores are at the mercy of broader slowdowns in the supply chain. “It’s little things like, why isn’t the yogurt display perfect?” the manager said. “They tear management to shreds and leave everybody on eggshells.”
Kristal Howard, a spokeswoman for Kroger, said the company has provided paid emergency leave and financial support for child care during the pandemic. It also gave employees an extra $2 an hour — which it called a “hero bonus” — for two months ending in late May and gave them a one-time bonus that topped out at $400.
“Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores,” Howard said.
In Jacksonville, Fla., the Publix store where Tonyalee Henderson works is trying to restore normalcy: It has reopened its salad and olive bars and stopped enforcing occupancy limits. But the reality for workers is far from normal, Henderson says. She is working fewer hours than she used to — about 20 a week instead of more than 40 — but is taking on extra responsibilities and often contending with irate customers for her $13.50 an hour.
“At first it was like, ‘You are so great for risking your life,’ ” she said. “Now the atmosphere is completely different.”
The company, she said, raised her pay by 50 cents an hour and gave her four Publix gift cards totaling about $200 after taxes.
In early April, managers gave each worker a disposable mask and a handout instructing them to clean it between uses by holding it over a pot of steaming water. Henderson began buying her own masks so she could change them after every shift. The company now provides Publix-branded cloth masks for its employees.
“So many of us are on the verge of quitting,” she said. “We’re having to do the work of three people while risking our health.”
A spokeswoman for Publix did not respond to requests for comment.
In Manhattan, a Trader Joe’s employee in her late 50s who spoke on the condition that she would not be identified says she has wondered whether to quit. She has not been feeling well but used up her paid sick time early in the pandemic and has twice tested positive for covid-19 antibodies.
“The unknowns are the worst part of it,” she said. “I do notice I’m out of breath more often but I don’t know what that is. It’s this constant fear for your physical health — not just from coronavirus but also from people who don’t want to follow the rules.”
Kenya Friend-Daniel, a spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s, said the company asks employees to stay home if they are unwell and has provided as much as two weeks of paid time off to those who feel sick or are awaiting covid-19 test results. It also is offering an extra $2 an hour in “thank you” pay through the end of the year.
“Anyone who is concerned about working may take an unpaid leave without question,” she said, adding that employees who received health benefits from the company before the pandemic will continue to receive insurance through the end of the year, regardless of how many hours they work.
The worker says she loves her job and does not want to quit. She has worked in retail for more than 35 years, but says she is tired of being treated like a second-class citizen.
“It’s my career even though it may not be a well-respected one,” she said. “I’m not feeling great today, so I’m sitting here debating: Do I go in? Do I not? If I take time off for feeling sick, I’m treated like I’m guilty until I prove otherwise. It’s a terrible position to be in.”