Coronavirus: Boom and Bust Across Retail

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland March 24, 2020
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grocery clerk

Update: As of April 6, at least four grocery workers have died of COVID-19, according to the Washington Post. The victims worked at Wal-Mart, Giant, and Trader Joe’s. The newspaper reported that “the rise of worker infections and deaths will likely have a ripple effect on grocers’ ability to retain and add new workers at a time when they’re looking to rapidly hire thousands of temporary employees.”

Grocery clerks are the new heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, and supermarkets are scrambling to hire more of them to meet spiking demand. But front-line workers are tiring of abuse from frantic shoppers, and some are getting worried about their health after learning that at least two supermarket employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Here's how much grocery workers are in vogue: Grocery stores are considered essential businesses under most if not all state closure orders, so their employees are permitted to travel to work. Grocery workers themselves have been deemed "essential employees" in at least three states so far--Vermont, Michigan and Minnesota--which qualifies them, along with health care providers and first responders, for free child care during the pandemic.  Whole Foods temporarily raised hourly wages by $2 and Trader Joe's announced a new bonus pool for its workers. And employees are being lauded on social media as #SupermarketSuperheroes. "Retail workers are like the band that continues playing while the Titanic is sinking," posted one fan.

How are employers protecting this precious resource? Most grocery chains, large and small, have reduced store hours to give employees more time to restock, sanitize their workplaces and even "rest." They are providing more hand sanitizer and posting signs about hand washing. Most grocers have implemented new or expanded sick-leave policies that make at least some accommodations for coronavirus illness or quarantine.

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One supermarket chain, British-based Aldi, has posted signs urging customers to "be kind' to clerks and stockers

Additionally, company leaders are weighing in on video and in writing to let employees know they are valued.

"As I visited some of our stores over the weekend, something became incredibly clear to me," wrote Kim B. Eskew, chairman of Harps Food Stores, an Arkansas-based chain of 81 supermarkets, in a memo he posted to Facebook. "I saw, almost without exception, smiling faces working feverishly to replenish dwindling stock levels or hurrying to check customers out through endless lines at the checkouts. Thousands of our people were putting themselves out there to provide food and supplies to a frightened populace. You did it willingly and with great enthusiasm. … While everyone was talking about crowd distancing, you were where the crowds were in order to provide food and supplies to the communities we serve."

A Mix of Pride and Fear

Some grocery workers are soaking up the new recognition. "I can't tell you how many times in the past my job has been a joke to family and friends," tweeted Austin Hartell, an aspiring illustrator and a store manager for a major grocery chain in Chicago. "Respect your retail workers. We're out here on the front lines of this, making sure everyone can still eat."

But along with pride, there is also fear. Supermarket conglomerate Kroger Co., which owns more than 24 chains including Ralphs, Fry's and Harris Teeter, disclosed on March 14 that two grocery store associates had been diagnosed with COVID-19. One worked in the King Soopers chain, and the other was a Fred Meyer employee. "Both associates are receiving medical care and are recovering," Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen wrote in a memo to employees. "We are supporting them and wish them all the best in their recovery. … The stores remain open. We will continue to follow guidance from local, state and federal agencies, including the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and other health organizations."

A 67-year-old grocery clerk in Seattle was among readers who recently shared their concerns with Vox news. Worried about her own health and the health of the public, the woman identified as Chris said she decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from the store, at least for a while. "It's an awful decision," she said. "Go to work and put your life at risk, or lose your job, lose your income and lose your insurance. I haven't committed either way at this point."

Recently released OSHA guidelines on the coronavirus called for employers to explore ways "to increase the physical distance among employees and between employees," a challenge in a supermarket environment. One positive trend for workers may be the grocery pickup and delivery services being offered by a growing number of supermarkets. But those services are strained right now, with wait times of a week or longer.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents many supermarket employees, called on companies to do more and criticized sick-leave policies that require a doctor's confirmation of COVID-19 despite the well-known shortage of tests.

Recently released OSHA guidelines on the coronavirus called for employers to explore ways "to increase the physical distance amo

Unprecedented Hiring Push for Stores and Distribution Centers

As nonfood retailers close physical outlets under state orders or due to dwindling demand, supermarket chains and food distributors are courting newly unemployed workers, at least for the duration of the crisis.

The demand is great for both in-store clerks and order fulfillment personnel. Drivers and warehouse workers are also in high demand. Kroger CEO McMullen said his stores have already hired 2,000 additional workers and are looking to bring on 10,000 more. SpartanNash, a Michigan-based food retailer and wholesaler, recently unveiled a 14-state program to hire displaced workers and students for temporary positions that could become permanent, noting that demand is two to three times higher than normal because of the pandemic.

On March 20, Walmart announced it would hire 150,000 temporary workers, hoping to draw from workers who lost their jobs in restaurants and hotels. In a call with reporters, the company, which employs about 1.4 million workers, also said it would pay $150 to $300 to all employees on staff as of March 1 to reward them for their "hard work and dedication."

Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association, which represents independent grocers employing nearly 1 million workers, has been touting employment opportunities at his member companies and urging newly unemployed people to apply for jobs. "Please spread the word to anyone impacted by this crisis," he urged on his Twitter feed. "Out of work or need to pick up work? We'd love to have you and keep you employed!"

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