By Shayla Thompson, National Employment Law Project
Grocery store workers, like healthcare workers, first responders, and transportation workers, are currently among those deemed “essential” workers during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, indeed, they have always been essential: they help provide the food and supplies necessary to sustain us all.
But of all the frontline workers whose work puts them in contact with potentially infected members of the public, grocery workers are among those who receive the least protections and the lowest pay.
Now grocery workers, too, are becoming infected—and some are dying of COVID-19.
It is deeply disturbing that several large corporate grocery retailers are simply not doing enough to protect workers’ safety or health during this critical time. Some of these retailers have been accused of harmful practices against workers in normal times. But lax health and safety protections during this crisis are dangerous and intolerable. Some food stores have reportedly put concerns about optics before the health and safety of workers by not allowing gloves to be worn by workers. Despite a recent Politico analysis that revealed cashiers are the largest number of at-risk workers, these workers continue to fight employer inaction.
Of all essential frontline workers, grocery workers are among the least protected and lowest paid.
Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores, while white workers are more likely to be represented in management and supervisory roles. This means that the panic shopping that is resulting in lines out of the door and physical fights over supplies is being experienced disproportionately and most directly by workers of color. Shoppers are stocking up on supplies and food to stay home and to minimize exposure or risk, protecting themselves and their families. But what about the workers who are making the food and supplies available? Why isn’t their health and safety being better protected by their employers?
A cashier at a major grocery store in northwest Washington, D.C. says that her employer has done nothing to ensure that workers are protected from the influx of customers that she interacts with daily. The store has not even provided every employee with requested protective gear, leaving many of them to supply their own. When she questioned management about the store supplying workers with protective gear, she was told that masks are not allowed because they only prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the company is only obligated to provide gloves to staff that come into contact with unwrapped food goods. This week, her store changed its policy and is allowing all workers to wear masks. But the workers are still responsible for supplying the masks and gloves themselves. “Even the porter, the person who cleans the bathroom, they don’t provide gloves to him. He brought his own gloves,” she said.
The federal agency in charge of workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has failed to issue a standard requiring employers to implement specific protections to safeguard at-risk workers in this crisis. Congressional efforts to require OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect the most at-risk healthcare workers were blocked by the Trump administration and hospital industry lobbyists.
It has become painfully clear that state and local lawmakers need to swiftly implement health and safety protections for all frontline workers. In Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Vermont, grocery workers have been officially classified as emergency workers—a designation that will make free childcare services available to them during the crisis. But no state has implemented any other required protections for grocery or any other workers. Further, OSHA is not conducting any enforcement when workers complain about unsafe conditions.
In unionized supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has pushed large chains to install protective shields between cashiers and customers, and to provide hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and sanitizing of store surfaces, time to wash hands with soap, face shields, masks, gloves, and extend paid sick leave. But workers in non-union grocery stores are left with no required protection and few safety rights.
Black and brown workers are more likely to work in lower-paid, frontline positions like cashiers in retail stores.
Black and brown retail workers already faced large disparities in pay, scheduling, and advancement in their workplaces before the current crisis. These workers also make up a disproportionate number of workers in jobs with the highest injury risks. Recent reports have also shown that only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.2% of Latinx workers work in occupations that allow them to telework. The concentration of these communities in the retail and hospitality sectors is a major contributor to these inequities.
With many workers of color on the job in workplaces that may expose them to a potentially deadly transmissible virus, these workers are facing both panic and a status they know all too well: exclusion. In fact, even if Black workers have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, they must then navigate a medical systemthat has discriminated against their communities long before COVID-19 swept across the globe.
A 61-year old Black woman I spoke with who works as a grocery cashier and has survived two strokes is not only concerned about her health but also has had to take additional steps to purchase groceries for her family. Her shift starts at 6 a.m., but she shows up even earlier to try to buy what she needs before her shift begins and the store gets busy. She began this routine after she was unable to buy toothpaste and soap for herself one day after her six-hour shift ended.
“We don’t have none in stock. We used to have hand sanitizer on each register but since this virus there’s been a backorder for hand sanitizer, so we don’t have any,” she said.
Union protections have proven to be crucial for workers of color and will be even more vital for frontline workers right now. The COVID-19 crisis has propelled workers to unify and use their collective power to secure the protections they need to endure the daunting workdays ahead. Across the country, workers who have joined together to form unions have won some of the strongest standards for essential workers in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis has propelled many workers to use their collective power to secure the protections they need.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of socioeconomic problems that workers have faced for years. In every recession, disaster, or other crisis in our history, Black and brown people have endured the hardest of hardships. It appears that the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. The impact on our families, communities, and the economy will extend for years to come, even after we can leave our homes and return to the everyday routines that we sorely miss right now.
Essential frontline workers are keeping the U.S. running during this crisis. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their own well-being to keep the rest of us safe. We must fight for immediate solutions that prioritize strong health and safety standards, wage protections, paid leave, and unemployment insurance to protect frontline workers and all workers affected by this public health crisis.