August 12, 2020; Washington Post
When the pandemic-induced economic shutdown occurred, grocery workers found themselves, NPQ observed, with a new label as “essential workers.” Some were even called “heroes”—and for good reason. As John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, noted back in April, “Grocery workers are risking their safety, often for poverty-level wages, so the rest of us can shelter in place. The only way the rest of us are able to stay home is because they’re willing to go to work.”
Logan’s statement was no exaggeration. Grocery workers’ health—and even their lives—were very much on the line. Already, by early April, it was reported that 41 grocery workers had died of COVID-19, while over 1,500 had contracted the virus.
But at least at the time, recalls Abha Bhattarai in the Washington Post, at many stores, grocery workers gained both some status and bonus pay for their efforts. Bhattarai profiles Angel Manners, 43, a grocery worker in northern Kentucky who processes vendor deliveries at a Meijer store. Bhattarai writes:
This spring, for the first time, Angel Manners found purpose and pride at the supermarket where she has worked the past decade. Customers praised her as a hero for putting herself at risk during the pandemic. Bosses boosted her hourly pay by $2. Suddenly, her job was essential.
Nearly five months in, and it is all gone.
“We’ve lost our hazard pay, and people are quitting every day,” Manners tells Bhattarai. “Those of us who are left are really stretched thin—working so much harder for $11.50 an hour.”
Some workers are quitting, but, of course, with mass unemployment, many hold on to their jobs despite low morale and the increased workplace demands caused by the many new precautions and sanitation procedures implemented due to the coronavirus.
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“Those who remain,” explains Bhattarai, “say they are overworked, taking on extra hours, enforcing mask requirements, and dealing with hostile customers.”
“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,” Fox Wingate, 24, who works at a Safeway in Maryland, tells Bhattarai.
But while for many workers the “hero” bonuses are long gone, the risks of contracting COVID-19 are not. Back in April, it was estimated that 41 grocery workers had died and over 1,500 had contracted the virus. Today, those numbers have increased to an estimated 130 grocery worker deaths, with total COVID-19 cases exceeding 8,200.
But Bhattarai cautions that these estimates may well be low, since “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 is a shop steward at the grocery store and has been working at Meijer for 10 years, says she has never felt so demoralized. She says that at least a dozen colleagues in her department have quit in the past month alone.
“Some customers were appreciative in the beginning but now they’re just rude,” Manners adds.
Grocery store managers, too, feel their job quality has declined. For instance, a mid-level manager at a Kroger store in Kentucky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job, told Bhattarai that, “The pressure is wearing away at us in great chunks.” The manager added, “We’re getting it from both ends: customers and corporate.”—Steve Dubb