As the global pandemic drags on, grocery store employees have become frontline workers, and two months into the crisis, they’re still putting their own health at risk to keep America fed — and keep food on their own tables. The risk is real: Dozens of supermarket workers have already died of COVID-19; this week, Randy Narvaez, a longtime employee at the Kroger-owned King Scoopers, in Denver, became the latest casualty of the crisis.
So far, the federal government has failed to mandate any meaningful protections for grocery workers — and, as Mother Jones points out, only a “handful” of states have taken action themselves, some mandating masks for workers, shoppers, or a combination of the two. In most of the country, however, workers are dependent on the policies of their employers.
Some things have improved since the first days of the crisis. Now, most national brands — including all the companies we spoke to for this piece — say they’re providing workers with masks, and many require that they wear them. Most stores have also outlined heightened daily cleaning procedures, as well as additional sanitizing protocols if an employee tests positive. And the majority now offer at least some kind of additional sick leave, even if the details of those programs aren’t always successfully communicated to employees. Since the start of the pandemic, mass calls for companies to give grocery workers hazard pay have led to several chains giving employees hourly wage increases or bonuses, an acknowledgment that just by clocking in, workers are putting themselves at risk.
That well of appreciation is apparently drying up, though. This month, many chains will start lifting those monetary bonuses, showing that there’s only so long grocery brands will consider their employees “heroes.” With that in mind, we sifted through the policies of several major grocery chains, looking at the steps they’re taking to protect their workers, and what workers say about how those policies are playing out on the ground. It’s far from comprehensive: Corporate policies don’t necessarily reflect the store-level reality, and what’s happening at one location isn’t necessarily what’s happening at another. But in case you do have a choice as to where you can shop, consider the following:
Sick leave: The Amazon-owned prestige grocery behemoth offers “up to an additional two weeks of paid time off” for employees who’ve either been formally diagnosed with COVID-19, or who have been instructed to quarantine by a “medical or government authority” or by the store itself, a Whole Foods spokesperson told Eater.
If a worker is sick longer than that — or if they have other pandemic-related caretaking responsibilities, or are themselves immunocompromised — employees can either tap into paid time off they’ve already accrued, or take unpaid time off. To that end, the company has “relaxed time and attendance policies,” the spokesperson said, to allow “Team Members to take unlimited, unpaid time off during this time.” (The spokesperson did not say for how long their current job would be protected.)
Hazard pay: All full-time and part-time workers at Whole Foods stores and facilities are receiving an additional $2 on top of their usual hourly rate, in effect through May 31, a spokesperson confirmed. Employees are also paid double their regular base for working overtime through the end of this month — standard store policy for extreme circumstances.
General safety: Whole Foods requires all employees — as well as Prime Now shoppers and third-party shoppers — to wear masks while working. The company also offers workers optional “gloves and personal face shields.” Employees have their temperatures checked before each shift, and shifts are now staggered, the spokesperson said. Breaks are longer, and every other cash register is left empty to allow space between workers.
To manage crowding, all stores are limiting the number of customers that can enter at once, as well as putting up “visual cues and in-store signage” encouraging distancing, and performing “daily audits to ensure compliance.” Plexiglass barriers now separate customers from workers at checkout, and all carts and credit cards readers are disinfected between uses.
One recent change: In early May, all Whole Foods stores began “requesting” — though not requiring — that all shoppers wear face coverings. The store provides disposable masks to anyone who shows up uncovered.
How it’s going: Mixed bag! On social media, at least some workers say they feel the store is doing what it can. “[E]ven though Amazon” — Whole Foods’ parent company — “could do more,” wrote an employee on Reddit, “they’re still going above what our local competitors are doing for their staff members.”
On March 31, Whole Worker, an organization of Whole Foods employees advocating for better labor conditions (but not — given Amazon’s history of union-busting — an officially recognized union) called for a mass “Sick Out” to protest what it says are inadequate safety precautions on the part of the company. When Whole Worker joined forces with a number of other big-box stores — including Target and Walmart — for a general strike on May 1, its members reiterated the same list of still-unmet demands.
The March Sickout did improve some things, Portland-area employee Tim Billado told the Portland newspaper Street Roots. At his store, masks are indeed available, plexiglass shields have been installed, and the promised social-distancing measures are in place. But the company is slow to inform workers when someone in their store tests positive, he says.
And even if the current policies are perfectly enforced, Whole Worker says they’re not enough to keep employees safe. The organization is still fighting for guaranteed paid sick leave “for all workers who isolate or self-quarantine,” health care coverage for part-time employees (the benefit was cut back in September), better hazard pay, and more comprehensive safety policies — including shutting down stores for deep cleaning when a worker tests positive for the virus.
Sick leave: The cult-favorite bargain warehouse declined to answer any questions about its policies. (“Our focus is to have merchandise available for our members at low warehouse prices,” a representative told Eater by email.) Costco’s public website also doesn’t say much about its employee safety protocol.
According to BuzzFeed News, which has reported extensively on the company’s response to the virus, employees who are sick or concerned about working can use accumulated paid time off or sick pay — if they have it. Beyond that, their only option is to take a coronavirus-related unpaid leave of absence, which the company is allowing until the end of May. If it’s any comfort, Costco has displayed a singularly egalitarian spirit, and was also slow to adopt work-from-home policies for corporate employees, insisting they continue to work from the company’s Seattle-area headquarters, even as other Seattle companies shifted to working from home.
General safety: All the now-standard protective procedures are theoretically in place. The company provides masks and gloves for employees and put up plexiglass shields at registers. Registers are supposed to be sanitized every 15 minutes, social distancing is mandated in break rooms, workers are notified of confirmed cases in stores, and the store is limiting the number of customers in at once.
How it’s going: Costco employees say that crowd control is a major issue, reporting stores packed well beyond supposed limits. “The rules are out the window,” a store supervisor in Texas told BuzzFeed News. An employee in Connecticut echoed the sentiment: “We don’t even bother keeping track of approaching capacity even though the state mandates it,” they said.
Other employees told BuzzFeed that management at their stores has been slow to implement safety measures, and that they aren’t adequately notified when a colleague gets sick. Costco would not comment further about specific policies or rules.
Sick leave: Target offers 14 days of “quarantine pay” to employees placed under mandatory quarantine, and “confirmed illness pay at 100 percent of their pay for 14 days” for employees who’ve tested positive. (Target did not elaborate on what “quarantine pay” is.) The company is also waiving the usual absenteeism policy — essentially amounting to unlimited unpaid sick leave. Workers who are 65 or older, pregnant, or otherwise “considered among the most vulnerable by the CDC” have “the opportunity to take a fully paid leave for up to 30 days,” a spokesperson said.
Notably among the companies on this list, Target is offering employees at least some child care. The company’s “Backup Family Care” benefit provides workers with 20 days of “in-center childcare or in-home child- and eldercare,” and for now, the company is waiving copays and other eligibility requirements.
Hazard pay: Target is among the companies raising pay for all hourly employees by $2/hour, a policy the company recently extended through July 4. The company is also paying out unspecified bonuses to its 20,000 hourly store team leads.
General safety: Target requires all employees to wear face coverings, and provides all workers with disposable masks. Otherwise, Target has implemented the usual suite of sanitizing and distancing measures: installing plexiglass barriers, cleaning carts after each use and checkout lanes after every transaction, increasing store cleaning, and limiting store traffic “when needed” to prevent crowding.
How it’s going: While Target is, again, the only company on this list to offer any explicit support to for workers with sudden caretaking responsibilities, employees report that — at least at some stores — the store’s protective policies don’t match reality, according to the employee activist group Target Workers Unite, which helped organize the May 1 strike.
Karli, a Target employee in Kansas, says she hasn’t felt “any real danger” on the job: PPE is well-stocked, and the store is monitoring the number of shoppers allowed in at once, even if she thinks they’ve set capacity too high. She’s getting the extra $2/hour of hazard pay, she reports, though she also points out a similar raise was in the works pre-pandemic: Last year, the company announced plans to up minimum wage by $2 by the end of 2020.
As for sick leave, it does exist — at least in theory. “We’re not really told about our options so much,” she says, referring to the additional child care and sick leave benefits. “They’re not making it easy for us. They’re not giving us those resources.” She wasn’t sure, for example, if she’d qualify for the policy if she needed it, because she only started working full-time recently and doesn’t have the hours banked. When her partner, who’s also a Target employee, tried to go on paid leave, they found the process so daunting they gave up and ultimately took the time unpaid. (They’re not alone: On the Target Workers Unite website, a worker recounts their experience trying to qualify for the 30-day paid leave, which they describe as an extremely tortuous process. They got it, but it took eight days.)
In general, information is hard to come by, she says. “I never know exactly what’s going on. As far as I know, there’s no newsletter from corporate that I can read up on and so I’m pretty much just hearing it through the grapevine.”
“We apologize for any confusion about how our benefits support our team members,” a Target spokesperson told Eater. “Target team members regularly receive communication about their benefits through a variety of internal communication channels, and all leaders have received information to guide their team members to the right resources.” The spokesperson also apologized for “the frustration that these team members have experienced” navigating the paid-leave application process, and said the company had “created new ways to apply for leave benefits via phone, online or an email process to help decrease wait times and provide more convenient options for team members.” And Karli would qualify for COVID-related sick and quarantine pay after all. The benefits are “available to all team members,” said the spokesperson. “No need to accrue sick time.”
Sick leave: The beloved brand — known for its Hawaiian shirts and generally humane policies — has been offering up to two weeks of additional paid sick time “to crew members who have any symptoms of illness.”
General safety: It has been a high-profile journey. Back in March, Trader Joe’s made headlines when some workers (“crew members”) reported their managers had banned masks and gloves, worried they’d scare customers. (This was never official company policy, but does illustrate how conditions vary by store. It also underlines the consequences of a disastrously haphazard federal response.)
That has since obviously changed — the company now provides employees with masks and is “urging” workers to wear them. (Gloves, also provided, remain optional.)
As for social-distancing measures and other safety protections, Trader Joe’s policies look a lot like everyone else’s: limiting traffic in stores, cleaning better and more often, staggering open registers, and installing plexiglass barriers. More notably, the company has started closing some stores for one-day “precautionary” cleanings.
How it’s going: According to a recent statement from the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union, issued after the death of a Manhattan employee, the company’s response has been both slow and inadequate. They say management has recently increased the number of people allowed in stores at once — a “clear example of putting revenue above workers” — and are asking the company to enforce social distancing, increase hazard pay, and provide paid sick leave for high-risk workers. They also say Trader Joe’s has been cutting hours, putting workers’ health insurance in jeopardy.
A spokesperson for the company tells Eater that’s not the case, and says that “anyone who qualified for health insurance before all of this, is not in jeopardy of having that important benefit taken away from them if they’re working less hours now.” Stores may have fewer employees working at once to allow for social distancing, but Trader Joe’s has added shifts before and after the store closes “to help make up for any lost hours,” the spokesperson says. As for overcrowding, the spokesperson says she was aware of “claims from union organizers,” but that the company is taking appropriate steps, monitoring the number of shoppers in at once, and paying “close attention” to traffic patterns inside stores.
Sick leave: Walmart has three different levels of leave, ranging from up to two weeks unpaid, for workers who have “COVID-19 concerns,” to up to two weeks of full pay plus up to 26 weeks of partial pay for workers who’ve been diagnosed with the virus and have medical certification.
The company is waiving its standard attendance policy but only for absences “due to COVID-19 related concerns, symptoms, or illnesses.” COVID-induced caretaking responsibilities do not qualify.
Hazard pay: In late March, Walmart raised wages for all hourly workers by $2/hour, a policy that extends through Memorial Day. The company also gave workers bonuses in early April and recently announced it’d be doing the same in June — $300 for full-time employees, $150 for part-time — and paid out regularly scheduled quarterly bonuses early.
General safety: After two employees at a store outside Chicago died of the virus — and one’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company — Walmart hired an outside company to sanitize high-touch areas like carts and cash registers, the Washington Post reports. The company now provides workers with masks — a change as of April 20 — and there are sneeze guards at checkout, daily temperature checks, and limits on how many customers can shop at once.
How it’s going: One employee in Colorado, who asked to speak anonymously to protect her job, says she’s been on a 14-day sick leave since a colleague died of the virus. “I’m sure I was exposed,” she says. She was pretty sure she qualified for paid leave because of her medical history, but “I’ll know in the next two weeks if I get a paycheck.” That kind of uncertainty has left some workers afraid to take time off. (Not irrationally — according to a New York Times op-ed by Walmart employee and labor activist Melissa Love, the company “doesn’t consistently accept doctors notes.”)
At her store, she says, masks and gloves have been available — if tightly guarded — but the company isn’t doing enough to notify employees when there’s been a positive case in their store. When another coworker died, the company never disclosed that he’d tested positive. “We just found out after from his wife,” she says.
“We’ve put a process in place to inform associates working in a store anytime we receive confirmation of a positive case, or in the tragic event of a loss of one of our team members,” a spokesperson tells Eater. “This includes reminding them of the leave options available should they feel uncomfortable coming to work, the cleaning and sanitization steps we put in place in the store,” as well as mental health resources “should they want to talk with someone about what has happened.”
She’s hardly alone. The worker advocacy group United for Respect’s crowdsourced COVID-19 case tracker shows numerous complaints from employees about their stores’ lack of transparency regarding their potential exposure to the virus.
Kroger family of companies: Kroger, Fry’s, Harris Teeter, and Ralphs, among others
Sick leave: The company’s “Emergency Leave Guidelines” allow up to 14 days of paid sick leave for employees “diagnosed with or placed under quarantine or experiencing symptoms, as verified by an accredited health care professional.” (A spokesperson did not respond to questions about what happens after that, or what options are available to workers who either don’t meet those criteria or are sick for more than 14 days.)
Hazard pay: While Kroger initially offered employees a raise of one $25 Kroger gift card, the situation has since improved. After an outcry, the company gave workers one-time bonuses — $300 for full-time employees and $150 for part-time, like Walmart — and finally announced that it, too, would pay frontline workers an extra $2/hour.
Kroger may have been slow to enact the bonus, but it was at the forefront of ending it: the policy expired May 16. This development did not go over well with the store’s union, United Food and Commercial Workers International, and on May 15, the company announced that while “hero pay” was over, it would be distributing “thank you” bonuses — $400 for full-time workers and $200 for part-timers, paid out over two installments in May and June.
In a new twist, Kroger accidentally paid a “small number” of employees too much emergency leave money, and politely asked workers to pay it back. One employee then posted this missive to Twitter, which responded with appropriate outrage. Again facing backlash, Kroger decided employees wouldn’t have to repay the money after all.
General safety: Kroger has installed plexiglass shields and “physical distancing floor decals.” Employees are required to wear masks, and customers are “encouraged” to do the same. Stores are limiting capacity, and like everywhere else, the company says high-touch areas are being cleaned more often.
Along with Albertsons, Kroger — the biggest grocery chain in the U.S. — has joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to get supermarket employees temporarily classified as first responders — a designation that would help them get priority access to masks, gloves, and testing.
How it’s going: Certainly, experiences are mixed; a worker at a Kroger in Seattle that’s had multiple confirmed cases says he’s terrified. But for at least one Ralphs employee, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job, the company’s safety measures are going pretty well, all things considered.
“I do feel safe,” she says. At her California store, employees clean every 30 minutes, on a strict schedule. The break room has been rearranged to promote social distancing. They’re given latex gloves and reusable masks, three per full-time employee. “For the most part, it’s not that crazy,” she says. So far, nobody at her store has been sick.
Still, there are things she wishes her store did better. It can be hard to keep up with the increased cleaning schedule. That seems to be a common complaint. In Michigan, a Kroger stocker reports he’s finding the same thing. “[W]e would have huge deliveries, and have to get the product out so cleaning would get set aside,” he told Reveal.
And while Kroger companies, like a lot of stores, are taking employees’ temperatures before each shift, employees tell BuzzFeed News the actual process borders on the absurd. Multiple Kroger employees reported their temperatures scanned so low they’d be dead if the readings were accurate. At the Kafkaesque Harris Teeter, workers also have their temperatures taken, but they aren’t told what their temperature is. (“We are not medical professionals and do not want to give medical advice,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed.)
Albertsons companies: Albertsons, Acme, Safeway, and Vons, among others
Sick leave: According to the Albertsons website, all brands are “encouraging our associates to stay home when they feel ill, and are working with our Human Resources team to ensure that every member of our team who faces a crisis can have peace of mind that we will help them get through it.”
It’s not exactly clear how that “peace of mind” plays out in practice. Albertsons could not be reached to explain its policies, but based on the policies outlined on the company website, workers who have a formal COVID-19 diagnosis are eligible for up to two weeks “replacement pay,” as are any workers who’ve been asked to self-quarantine, either by their doctor or by the company. After two weeks, they “will be able to use any other sick leave pay or short-term disability.”
Hazard pay: Like their competitors, the company gave frontline workers “Appreciation Pay,” in the form of an additional $2/hour. The Albertsons website suggests the program ended May 2, but a spokesperson for Albertson’s and Safeway told the Seattle Times on May 8 it’s still going. “At this point, there is no firm end date for our ‘Appreciation Pay,’” she said.
General safety: In addition to more vigorous cleaning protocol — like a lot of places, Albertsons has assigned staff dedicated to sanitizing the store’s surfaces — the company is taking all the now-standard steps: plexiglass sneeze guards at checkout, signage to promote social distancing, limiting customer capacity “at many stores,” and providing all employees with masks.
How it’s going: Very few employees at stores under the Albertsons umbrella have publicly commented one way or the other about how the company is handling the pandemic, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the “majority” of Albertsons employees, has not yet responded to Eater’s questions about conditions in the stores. (We’ll update if we hear back.) Based on the reports that do exist, though, Albertsons employees echo the concerns of workers across the industry. According to a Los Angeles Times dispatch from a Vons in Torrance, aisles are one-way, cashiers are armed with disinfectant, and the break room has been rearranged for social distancing. And after a worker at at a Safeway distribution center in Northern California died of COVID-19 and 51 others tested positive in mid-April, the company announced new safety protocol at warehouses, adding hand sanitizer stations and requiring all employees to wear masks.
Ahold Delhaize brands: Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop, among others
“Each local brand sets their own specific policies that are consistent with and supportive of local, state, and national health and safety requirements and regulations,” an Ahold Delhaize spokesperson said, meaning that the policy for sick leave at a Stop & Shop isn’t necessarily the same as the policy at, say, a Hannaford.
Sick leave: At Stop & Shop, workers who are required to quarantine — either by health officials, government authorities, or the company itself — get up to two weeks of paid sick leave, a spokesperson told Eater. After that, they “can utilize their own accrued paid time off.” As long as they’re recovering from COVID-19, the spokesperson said, their jobs will be secure. Stop & Shop did not comment on workers who have to take time off for other virus-related reasons, but in the New Yorker, Christine Merola, a bookkeeper in Queens, put it bluntly: “If you leave to take care of a family member, you won’t be paid.”
The Giant Company, which operates under the Martin’s brand (but is not to be confused with fellow Ahold Delhaize-owned supermarket chain Giant Food, which didn’t respond to Eater’s questions), also provides “up to two weeks pay for team members impacted by the coronavirus,” which it defines as people who are either ill or under quarantine because of contact with someone with a positive diagnosis.
Hazard pay: Stop & Shop and Giant Food have both been paying workers an “additional 10 percent increase above their base salary,” a policy that’s been extended through May 30, while the Giant Company is offering an additional $2/hour of “Appreciation Pay,” also through May 30. Food Lion didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the company website does somewhat ambiguously promise that it has “implemented pandemic guidelines, including … compensation.”
General safety: Stop & Shop is requiring all workers wear the store-provided KN95 face masks and gloves at work. (Employees who can’t are allowed to sub in an alternative face covering, the spokesperson said.) Workers are washing their hands every 20 to 30 minutes and cleaning “high-touch” surfaces more frequently; the store is limiting the number of shoppers in at once; there are plexiglass dividers at checkout and pharmacy counters; and a third-party cleaning service was hired to help stores “everyday maintain high levels of sanitation.”
Those are more or less the same policies in place at the Giant Company: masks for all employees, more frequent cleanings, metering the number of shoppers in the store at once, enforcing one-way aisles, and — as of mid-April — asking customers to send only one shopper per household into the store.
How it’s going: According to Merola, the NYC Stop & Shop employee, it’s not too bad. “I have my Clorox wipes. I wipe down my keyboard, my mouse, my stapler, adding machine, the pen, any drawer that I will use with a handle, the phone, the desk — everything I touch,” she said. “Our union and Stop & Shop have worked together. If you do test positive, or you have to be quarantined, you’ll be paid for the two weeks. It’s pretty good.”
Joseph Jarmie, head meat cutter at a Stop & Shop in Connecticut, has another concern: customer behavior. Shoppers don’t always observe social-distancing guidelines, he said, and while the store “encourages” customers to wear masks, like most chains, it doesn’t require them. The issue is hardly limited to Stop & Shop — across the board, employees report customers getting too close.
Sick leave: “An employee is eligible for fully paid sick leave if they exhibit COVID-like symptoms, tests positive for COVID-19, have a physician’s diagnosis, or if they have direct exposure to someone who’s infected and need to self-isolate at home,” a Wegmans spokesperson told Eater. How long that paid leave lasts is “determined on a case-by-case basis,” they said.
Wegmans is one of the few grocery chains with stated provisions for “more vulnerable” workers, offering them the opportunity to move into roles with “limited or no direct contact with the public,” the spokesperson said. Employees who are “uncomfortable being at work” can take unpaid time through the company’s “COVID-19 job-protected voluntary leave” program. As of now, there is no time limit on the policy.
Hazard pay: Wegmans is yet another chain offering hourly workers an additional $2/hour through the end of May, “but we will continue to evaluate the situation,” the spokesperson said.
General safety: Wegmans is providing all employees with masks, and requiring workers to wear them “where it is mandated by the local government,” a spokesperson said. (Like most big-box retailers, Wegmans also does not require customers to wear face coverings, except in states that mandate it.) As of the week of May 11, temperature checks for workers were rolled out to all stores. Otherwise, the official protocol looks similar to elsewhere: more and deeper cleaning, additional “visual indicators” to remind customers to keep their distance, regular employee wellness checks, and newly installed plexiglass shields at pharmacies and checkouts. Stores are also limiting the number of shoppers to 15 to 20 percent of their usual capacity.
How it’s going: The store inspires a certain evangelism, and that seems to be true right down to its COVID-19 response. While some critics have argued that Wegmans has been slow to communicate confirmed cases to the public and should have allowed workers to wear masks sooner — a common complaint across chains — public complaints from Wegmans employees are hard to come by, and accounts from workers on a Wegmans-centric Facebook page are unusually positive. (Admittedly, it’s a self-selecting group.) “At first I was worried coming [to] work everyday, but with everything the company is doing I feel better coming to work,” wrote one 32-year Wegmans vet. “If I didn’t feel safe, I wouldn’t be here,” commented another.
Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.