Workers at a Kroger-owned supermarket near Seattle breathed a sigh of relief last fall when they learned a coronavirus vaccine was around the corner.
“Once again, grocery workers have been put on the back burner and forgotten about,” said one QFC clerk, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears losing his job. “People are frustrated, to say the least. We have a vaccine program, but nobody knows what’s going on.”
Though hailed as “heroes” early in the pandemic, the nation’s 3 million grocery workers lag other essential workers when it comes to vaccine priority. Just 13 states — including Maryland, Virginia, California, New York and Pennsylvania — have begun inoculating such employees as the broader vaccine rollout is hampered by widespread delays, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 800,000 U.S. grocery employees
“The threat of this pandemic for essential workers is worse now than ever before,” Marc Perrone, the union’s president, told reporters this month. “Simply put, the failures in early vaccine distribution under the past administration have left millions of Americans and essential workers defenseless.”
At least 170 grocery employees have died and thousands more have tested positive for coronavirus, according to data from labor advocacy groups and media reports. Many workers say they have taken on additional hours and responsibilities to keep up with booming demand. Grocery stores and pharmacies were among the only retailers not swept up by shutdowns early in the pandemic, which workers say has placed additional strain on their jobs. Though many companies, including Kroger and Meijer, offered hazard pay early on, nearly all have stopped.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends including grocery workers in the second stage of the vaccine rollout — Phase 1B — along with firefighters, police officers and other front-line essential workers. But states are free to set their own guidelines. Eleven states, including Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Texas, do not have a clear plan to prioritize grocery workers, according to the workers advocacy group United for Respect.
In Tennessee, grocery workers aren’t expected to qualify for the vaccine until the second half of the year, along with overnight camp counselors and prison inmates, who are part of the state’s Phase 3 designation.
“Our employees have worked tirelessly during this pandemic and yet are not being given the protections necessary to do their job,” said Addie James, marketing director for four High Point Grocery and Cash Saver stores in Memphis. “It feels like you’re screaming into the void but nobody is listening.”
Workers say their vaccine challenges are further proof of how they have been shortchanged during the pandemic, especially as their employers are pulling in record profits and winning government contracts to administer vaccines. Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, made $3 billion in profit in the year ending Oct. 31, an 88 percent increase from 2019. In the last quarter alone, profits spiked 140 percent, to $631 million, year over year. Other big retailers, including Walmart, Target and Albertsons, also reported explosive sales gains.
“The message is that we’re easily replaceable,” the Seattle QFC worker said. “As far as the vaccine goes, nobody knows when we can get them.”
Though the pharmacy occasionally gives leftover doses to employees at the end of the day, he said, only a few colleagues have gotten them. He’d like to see greater urgency given the public-facing nature of their jobs.
“People talk about their bubbles and pods, but we don’t have a choice,” the worker said. “There’s no social distancing in a grocery store when you’re dealing with 1,700 people a day.”
Kristal Howard, a spokeswoman for Kroger, said the company provides its pharmacists and other health-care workers with “many forms of training,” including online modules, patient-safety guides, and life-support and CPR courses.
The grocery giant, which has already administered more than 380,000 vaccinations, is encouraging all employees to get inoculated and is giving a $100 bonus to those who do, she said. In all, Kroger has spent $1.5 billion on safety measures and extra pay during the pandemic, Howard said.
“Our most urgent priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers,” she said in a statement.
The government pays pharmacies and stores $45.33 to administer the two-dose vaccines, according to industry sources. That rate, set by Medicare, is similar to reimbursement fees for administering other vaccines, such as for the flu or shingles.
Major chains like Walmart and Target say they’re planning to offer employee vaccinations at stores and distribution centers when available. Many, including Trader Joe’s, Aldi and Dollar General, also are offering extra pay, free rides and cash bonuses to workers who get vaccinated. And Walmart on Thursday said it would raise wages for nearly one-third of its U.S. employees after a strong holiday season, lifting average pay to $15 an hour but leaving the starting rate at $11.
The gourmet grocery chain in Los Angeles where Dawn Smith works will pay workers for the time it takes to get inoculated, and also cover transportation costs. But Smith, who has been counting the days until she can get the shot, says it’s unlikely she’ll be eligible until March.
The 40-year-old assistant bakery manager says she’s spent the past year worried about taking the virus home to her son and in-laws.
“Of course health-care workers should get the vaccine first, that’s not a question,” Smith said. “But how many people am I exposed to in a day? Hundreds. Sick or well? I don’t know. Customers come in with masks under their nose, sipping their coffee as they walk around.
“We are trying as hard as we can, but this year has been a huge doozy,” she said. “It’s taken a huge toll, mentally and physically, on all of us.”
Employees have to sanitize cash registers, handles and telephones. “Everything has to be sprayed down every two hours,” Smith said, adding that a number of colleagues tested positive for the coronavirus around the holidays. “We’re constantly washing our hands. You have to think about every single move you make all day. It’s exhausting and anxiety-riddled.”
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now,” she said. “We just don’t know when we’ll get there.”
Even in states where grocery employees qualify for vaccinations, actually getting one can be a challenge.
“It’s like buying concert tickets: If you’re not online at dawn, clicking on the site for hours until something goes through, you’re out of luck,” said a Whole Foods employee in the Chicago area who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution. The worker, who was sick with covid-19 last year, has yet to get the vaccine and said he knows of only one colleague who has gotten it so far.
“We are essential workers,” he said. “They should be able to get us to the front of any line, but instead we’re sitting there refreshing the Walgreens site like everyone else.”
In Indiana, grocery clerk Alicia Hoaks, 36, says she expects to be among the “last of the last” to get the vaccine. The state is currently giving priority to residents 65 and older, as well as first responders and health-care workers, but has not announced a timeline for grocery or retail workers.
“Our pharmacists were vaccinated, but the rest of us are still waiting,” said Hoaks, who takes two buses to her job at a big-box supermarket in Lafayette. “It’s scary, working around people all day and worrying about bringing home the virus to my mother and grandmother. I’m the outside link, the one going to work every day in the middle of a pandemic."