For weeks, grocery workers have been ringing the alarm about unsafe conditions as they’ve been deemed “essential” workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers at Trader Joe’s say they were asked not to wear face masks, and that stores were kept open even after employees tested positive for COVID-19. Workers at Whole Foods staged a “sick out” over conditions which require many workers to choose between staying home if they feel ill or getting a paycheck. Now, unfortunately, we’re seeing why these demands are so crucial—grocery workers are beginning to die.
The Washington Post reports on four employees from various grocery companies—Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Giant—who were confirmed to have died of COVID-19. A FoodMaxx in San Jose also closed two weeks ago after an employee died. “One of the biggest mistakes supermarkets made early on was not allowing employees to wear masks and gloves the way they wanted to,” said analyst Phil Lempert. According to the New York Times, some Trader Joe’s managers initially asked employees not to wear masks or gloves because they might “frighten customers.” It has also been difficult for grocery employees to maintain a safe social distance, and there’s just the fact that increased interaction with other people in public increases chances of contagion.
According to the Post, grocery retailers hiring to meet demand will face new challenges as potential and current employees become increasingly aware of the dangers of infection. “[Retailers are] starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers,” said Lempert. “We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’” To be clear, this is the correct conclusion for any worker to draw.
Many grocery workers currently face the choice of being unemployed or risking one’s life by continuing to go to work everyday. Most grocery chains have only capitulated to better protections—whether it’s plexiglass sneeze guards at checkout counters, or paid sick time—after immense worker pressure. And even then, workers are still living paycheck to paycheck, which makes the decision to sustain from working even more complicated. A worker at Whole Foods recently explained to Eater that, while the company allows for “unlimited call outs,” they are unpaid, and paid sick-time is only available for those who test positive for COVID-19. It is incredibly difficult for workers to make a healthy choice.
Grocery stores are a necessity, because people need to eat, and outside of delivery, free food programs, and personal gardens, they are where people get their food. Even if we pivot to government-sponsored food boxes, someone—the stockers, packers, and delivery employees—still has to risk a level of exposure. But these recent deaths reveal a complete breakdown at every level of this pandemic. People aren’t able to get tested for COVID-19 so they can meet the qualifications for paid sick-leave, low-wage workers lack protections and benefits, there is no social safety net guaranteeing health care, and corporations operate under the assumption that workers will always be replaceable.