MIAMI – “We don’t know what we are going to face during the day. Many customers are angry from having to wait outside in the heat and wearing a face mask. They are stressed and we are their lightning rods because we cannot talk back.”
That’s Iya, a practitioner of Lukumí, describing her daily life as an employee of a Publix grocery store in Miami. (Iya, along with the other members of the Pagan community interviewed for this story, requested a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from management for speaking out.) Grocery store workers represent one of the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them have become ill and some have died. All have endured the stress and fear that comes with being “essential workers” in the midst of a global health crisis.
Alina, a Pagan who works in the produce department at a different Publix in Broward County, also noted how strained the staff is at her store. “It is very stressful, and managers are stressed also,” she said. “This is a hot spot for coronavirus. This very spot in Broward is a hot spot and everyone is scared. No one is trained for this.”
Food managers are required to have safety certifications conferred after taking a course and written examination. Those certifications are for safe food handling, but while they deal with infection control, mitigating a pandemic is out of their scope.
Iya added that her store was closed for cleaning after an employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The majority of staff in one department of another store, including a friend of Iya’s, were asked to self-isolate for 14 days after one worker was hospitalized in intensive care for COVID-19, leaving the department to function on a skeleton crew.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents some 900,000 workers, issued an urgent call for US political leaders to designate grocery stress workers as “first responders” or “emergency personnel.” (Publix Super Markets is not represented by UCFW, although it is the largest employee-owned company in the United States, with about 200,000 employees.)
Rodney McMullen, the CEO of the grocery chain Kroger, joined in a statement with the UFCW highlighting the critical responsibilities of grocery workers during the pandemic and the critical risk to which they are exposed as part of their daily work. The joint statement noted the essential functions that grocery store workers provide in keeping the food supply stable and accessible to families.
The joint statement noted that, “Given the significant daily risk these workers face, we are calling on all of our federal and state leaders to take immediate action. Specifically, we are requesting our nation’s leaders to assign a temporary designation of ‘first responder’ or ’emergency personnel’ status for all grocery workers. Make no mistake, this designation is absolutely critical as it will ensure these frontline workers have priority access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves.”
UCFW also noted that 20 union members have died from COVID-19 and nearly 3,000 workers have been directly impacted by the disease. The union has launched a national campaign titled #ShopSmart to bring attention to risks faced by grocery store workers who “are becoming exposed to the coronavirus and the direct threat this growing outbreak poses to our nation’s food supply.”
Using the results of a survey of 5,000 members, UCFW also highlighted the need to take decisive action to protect grocery store workers. The survey found that 29% of workers reported that customers treated them poorly. Most seriously the survey found that 85% of customers were reported as not practice social distancing, 62% were blaming store employees for shortages, and 43% of customers were shouting at employees.
Supermarket chains have responded to the pandemic to improve the safety of its employees and customers. Most grocery chains have limited the number of customers permitted in the stores, installed Plexiglas shields at checkout, and even limited availability of their prepared food offerings. Most grocery stores are also not accepting returns for safety reasons, something that has created additional customer tensions, particularly with online ordering.
Leon, a Pagan Whole Foods employee, said, “With all the stress from both customers and supervisors, I recently had my very first work-related panic attack.” (As with Iya and Alina, Leon requested a pseudonym for fear of retaliation.) “Because I’m worried about getting sick, getting other people sick, not knowing if I’m sick or the person I’m dealing with is sick. And dealing with people who don’t think it’s true.”
Leon added that payment and processing systems have changed online, making it difficult for elderly customers to navigate them. He and others added that when they can’t answer customer questions or answer calls, the customer requests are escalated to management – who then reprimand workers for failing to deliver customer service.
“Not all customers, but far too many, just don’t care about possibly getting or giving the virus through a return,” said Leon. “They just get very argumentative and want their money back.”
Reports from some Whole Foods stores say they are asking employees to check each other’s symptoms, and even considering installing thermal imaging cameras to monitor the body temperatures of workers. There are other reports that some Amazon/Whole Foods have become “dark stores,” only open to employees fulfilling orders for pick-up or delivery. Meanwhile, in cases where Amazon employees have raised concerns about their protection from the coronavirus, there have been reports of employees being dismissed or fired.
UFCW International President Marc Perrone released a statement today calling out Amazon/Whole Foods, where the novel coronavirus has now infected workers in at least 74 Amazon warehouses and delivery facilities.
“This is now a matter of life and death,” the statement says. “Amazon and Whole Foods must take immediate action to keep their workers safe from the rapidly growing coronavirus outbreak. With six more Whole Foods worker infections reported just reported, and countless Amazon workers exposed across the country, it is stunning that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is more focused on silencing brave whistleblowers than actually taking the action needed to protect these grocery and warehouse workers.
“Now, more than ever,” the statement adds, “corporations like Amazon must be held responsible for failing to keep its frontline workers from being exposed to the coronavirus outbreak.”
Customers have protested some of the conditions like standing in line before entering and demanding their carts be cleaned in front of them. Customers have also been seen discarding their masks and gloves in parking the parking lot after completing their purchases, leaving employees to clean up.
Many states and municipalities now have orders that everyone – customers and workers alike – must wear face masks. Masks are becoming harder to find, and some employers are asking their workers to find them on their own, re-use the ones provided, or wash the ones they have.
Alina says she understands the reason for wearing them, but they also scare her. “I don’t know who [the customers] are.” She worries about her son, also a grocery worker. “He’s a young black man wearing a mask.” Alina says she doesn’t cry, but she prays.
Daos, who identifies as a Catholic Warlock, works for Aldi in Miami. (Like the others who spoke to The Wild Hunt for this story, he requested a pseudonym due to fear of retaliation.) He said that he has received a 10% pay increase, and that Aldi is adding the increase to his previous hours worked. Aldi affirmed that they were increasing employee pay by 10% and backdating their increase to March 9, 2020. Albertsons, Amazon/Whole Foods, BJ’s, Costco, and Publix have also raised their grocery workers’ pay. Publix is also giving $50 gift cards or bonuses each week to employees who worked the last few weeks.
Daos added that his managers are scared. “They tell you what to do but back off getting involved.” As for customers, Daos said that he had not seen the kind of customer comments and behavior mentioned in the UCFW survey. “The customers here come in and go out. They don’t talk much. In fact, they all look shell-shocked.” Daos did add that he has seen poor customer behavior when he has shopped at Publix, though. “They seem to have it worse.”
All four grocery store workers noted that customers can also be vindictive. Leon said that customers leave “half-eaten items and garbage and masks and gloves in carts because they treat those like garbage cans. They don’t think about the employees who have to clean up after them.”
Iya said that spiritually she is taking the time to do daily devotions that have gone by the wayside in the past. “Life keeps you busy – you try, but sometimes you can’t. I explain to orisha and I apologize. What can I do?”
She uses a dab of cascarilla, or egg-shell powder, every day now. “I don’t use it for its traditional protection, but I ask Obatalá to remind me to be kind and I ask Yemaya to remind me to wash my hands.
“It is true that we employees are getting more stress and customers are disrespectful,” said Iya. “The customers are also stressed. I have seen pain first-hand.”
Iya said she was walking to get some soap from one aisle and found a woman crying while giving pieces of a roasted chicken to her daughter in a shopping cart. “I promise I will buy the chicken, I promise,” the woman said to her.
Iya paid for the chicken. The customer left the bones in their shopping cart.
Note: Some conversations were conducted in Spanish and translated.