We have a problem in aisle 5
Grocery workers assess the risks they face
EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE these days to be inside a supermarket, but few people know what it’s like to be in the shoes of the essential workers who keep those stores running.
On the Codcast, Boston-based Stop and Shop employee Jose Lopes and Whole Foods worker Dan offered their assessment of the risks they face these days working at grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan has asked that his last name not be used.)
Lopes unloads groceries from trucks, and spends the second part of his shift on the floor. “It’s extremely hectic. I wouldn’t imagine in the 38 years I’ve worked at Stop and Shop that I’d be seeing this,” he said.
Stop and Shop has provided its workers with gloves and a N95 mask, which must be reused several times since they are in short supply. Lopes said he’s concerned about wearing the mask so many times when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends only wearing it once.
“I go in with the mask and gloves. I try not to take them off, to take a break, or eat anything,” he said. “Keep the mask on until you go home.”
Lopes said the new rule allowing in only customers equal to 40 percent of the capacity of the store at a time is “not enough.”
The two employees also have concerns about how their stores handle situations when workers test positive. “We’re calling for stores to be shut down until they’re safe for employees and customers to come back and reopen,” Dan said.
“At Stop and Shop it’s really hush-hush,” said Lopes. “They try to find out information about who the person was in contact with so they can call that person, but they’re not informing anyone.”
Lopes said more disclosure is needed. “This is not a game. This is extremely dangerous. Employers need to take every precaution for employees and customers,” he said. Just last week, 59-year-old Market Basket employee Vitalina Williams died of coronavirus, marking the first death of a grocery store worker in Massachusetts.
Stop and Shop offers employees paid sick-time, recently negotiated by Local 1445 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. At Whole Foods, employees get two weeks of paid sick-time if employees prove they tested positive for COVID-19.
The attitude toward masks has also changed, as it has in society at large. Whole Foods employees were instructed in March not to wear masks, with many employees reporting they were told that this would scare customers. A Whole Food email to employees on April 13 said the company will require all employees and shoppers to wear masks.
On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a proposal for an “essential workers’ Bill of Rights” that would include work site evacuation after someone tests positives to allow for proper cleaning, premium compensation, and paid sick and medical leave.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced Sunday that grocery store workers can now get tested free of charge for COVID-19 at the drive-thru testing site at Gillette Stadium and at the Big E fairgrounds in West Springfield.Grocery store employees do not need to be symptomatic to be tested, but they do need to have a request for testing from a supervisor. Appointments can be scheduled for the next day, with results turned around within 48 hours for symptomatic employees, and three to five days for those without symptoms.
Hazard pay is a 10 percent increase in the workers’ base pay. Lopes thinks it’s not enough and says he should be paid time-and-a-half. Dan said Whole Foods has increased hourly wages by $2 an hour. “But consider the risk people are taking,” he says. “Workers have started dying and, with the concern of bringing it home to grandparents and family, it needs to be more,” he said.