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The Forgotten, Terrified Families of the Essential Grocery Store Worker

While doctors and other health-care providers are put up in hotels to keep their families safe, these workers on the frontlines of COVID crisis are forced to DIY their own decontamination stations on their porches and driveways

“I’m probably going to be infected because my boyfriend works at a grocery co-op and interacts with people all day long,” says Lizzy, who has limited her job responsibilities at a local domestic violence shelter for fear of inadvertently passing COVID-19 on to her clients given her heightened exposure. Tensions among grocery store employees and their partners have increased, Lizzy tells me, based on who is and isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously. Thankfully, Doug, her boyfriend, is among the former, stuffing his jacket into a backpack before entering the co-op and spraying it with Lysol at the end of every shift. When he gets home, he strips completely on his front porch and immediately hops into the shower. 

Still, Doug — who, like more than the dozen grocery store workers I speak with, isn’t using his last name or identifying his employer because of policies prohibiting speaking with the press — is resigned to his fate. “I’m definitely going to get it sooner or later,” he says with solemn confidence, adding that his hands have aged 10 years in the last two weeks from constant sanitizing. “I make $12 an hour. The co-op was never designed to be a laboratory with disinfection gates and sterilization facilities. I’m learning how to act like a surgeon because I have to scrub in every time I enter the bulk department.”

Comparing grocery clerks to physicians would have been absurd six months ago, but experts tell me it’s an apt analogy given the jobs’ newfound similarities in scrubbing, gowning and gloving. “It’s a crazy juxtaposition, but as much as possible, grocery store workers need to act like surgeons entering an operating theater,” says John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University, who has studied grocery workers for more than two decades.

But while doctors and grocers have more in common than ever, their capacity to mitigate contagion risk to family members is strikingly dissimilar. Throughout the world, medical professionals are relocating to second homes, quarantining in hotels and Airbnb-ing with groups of physicians in “dirty doc” mansions to isolate from loved ones. For minimum-wage checkout clerks, though, bougie sequestration isn’t an option. 

“Many cities are providing medical staff the option of housing in hotels and university dorms,” Logan explains, noting these arrangements aren’t available for grocery store workers despite a growing number of states classifying them as “essential.” Some, like Vermont, California and Minnesota, offer certain benefits such as childcare to grocery store workers and physicians alike, but not separate housing. Which needs to change, says John T. Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the United Food & Commercial Workers, since they and their families are clearly at risk: “Workers in food stores are the ones keeping this nation from going into civil unrest.” 

Logan says grocery chains were too slow to adopt critical precautions to protect employees, the perception of whom has changed from disposable to essential overnight. “It’s remarkable how little [grocery stores] were doing initially, and they’re still way behind,” he tells me. “It’s incumbent upon these companies that are making record profits during this crisis to mitigate the chance of passing the virus on to family members, which means requiring hand sanitization for customers before they enter and installing shower and laundering facilities on-site for staff.” 

At a chain in South Florida, moderate safety precautions have only been implemented within the last couple days, per Craig, a 29-year-old front service clerk who lives with his aging parents. “It’s sad, but it took a bunch of workers getting sick before they did the bare minimum to ensure they protect themselves from lawsuits,” he says, adding that cues on the floor to promote social distancing aren’t working since too many people are allowed into the store. “Some customers are extremely rude to us; others dismiss the virus as a hoax.”

Along those lines, Denise, a front-end supervisor at a grocery store in the Midwest, was physically threatened by a customer after asking him to step back and provide proper social distance. Another raised his fist at her for touching his groceries, prompting coworkers to employ a code word over the intercom  — “no line on four” — if unruly patrons threaten them. 

Meanwhile, Dylan, a 32-year-old assistant store manager in Louisiana, explains that a woman berated him over the store’s limit on gallons of water, arguing that because it was distilled water, an exception should be made since it was for medical use. “I had to remind her that she isn’t our only customer and restrictions are in place for a reason. Our biggest problem is the sheer rudeness of people. How can anyone take off their dirty gloves and toss them in the parking lot? We’re at risk enough without having to pick up after these slobs.”

Sadly, too, improvements to safety protocols have largely been for show, explains Matt, a 23-year-old bagger for a national grocery chain in Indiana. “They created a fake PR position called ‘sanitation clerk’ so they could claim a whole new cleaning division was keeping us safe, but it’s just a guy walking around every couple hours spraying Purell on cart handles.” It’s especially concerning because Matt lives with his immunocompromised mother with diabetes and asthma. So, as soon as he clocks out, he cleans his phone with an alcohol swab, throws his uniform into a plastic bag and leaves his shoes outside of the house. “I’m like a plague patient in my own home with everybody avoiding me.”

Noreen, a 58-year-old staffer at a Seattle organic grocer, says that while there is a shower in the employee lounge, she and her coworkers have never been encouraged to use it before going home. Direction on what employees can do to avoid infecting family members is “nonexistent,” she explains, so she self-quarantines in the lower level of her house to protect her husband and daughter. A representative from her store’s PR firm points me to the company’s “temporary employee appreciation wage increase” of $2 per hour (through April 18th), an expansion of staff lounges to allow for more space during breaks and wellness checks of every employee at the start of each shift (though not when the shift ends). 

Similar changes have been adopted by major grocery chains nationwide, including Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, Costco, Sprouts and Kroger, which also have offered bonuses or temporary raises to employees working during the pandemic. Safeway boosted wages by $2 per hour as well, and several independent grocers offered raises of up to $7 per hour, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers

But grocery store workers’ loved ones remain on edge. For example, after developing heart palpitations from anxiety about her Walmart grocery department manager boyfriend catching something at work and bringing it home, Sylvia, a 42-year-old in Charlotte, set up a decontamination station on a chair next to their front door with bleach spray and trash bags so that he can remove his dirty clothes and change into pajamas before entering their home. To be extra safe, she bought him a personal steamer to disinfect his clothes throughout the day. “It’s like he works for some biochemical radiation company,” she tells me. “I just found out animals can possibly get it, too, so I’m having nightmares about him getting my fur babies sick.”

Sylvia’s job at a gas station convenience store isn’t helping her anxiety either. “They added little arrows on the ground saying to stay six feet away, but the entire store is freaking six feet!” She’s also frustrated that hundreds of customers per shift are buying nonessential items like lottery tickets and cigarettes. “I see the same people every day coming in to buy one pack of cigarettes and think, Have you ever considered maybe buying THREE packs at once? It’s about keeping them safe, us safe and our families safe. If you’re coming into my store every day, you’re not taking this stay-at-home thing very seriously.”

As such, Logan predicts grocery store workers may soon decide that their low-paying jobs aren’t worth the risk to family members. At least 41 have died of the coronavirus, and thousands more have tested positive in recent weeks, with eight grocery store employee deaths reported in Detroit alone last weekend. (A brother of a Walmart grocery employee who died of COVID-19 is suing the brick-and-mortar behemoth, alleging the store failed to notify workers after several employees began showing symptoms.) “Of course, with mass unemployment you’d think there’s always going to be people willing to sign up for grocery store gigs,” Logan says. “But new employees with no safety training are being asked to follow the same safety protocols as EMT responders.” 

When Kroger announced it had 10,000 jobs available nationwide last month, I applied for one at my local Ralphs, a Kroger subsidiary, and was immediately called in for an interview. Despite having zero grocery store experience, I was hired as a “courtesy clerk” (i.e., “bagger”), and asked to start the following day. When I expressed concern about possibly infecting people I live with and asked what safety protocols were in place to protect them, the manager explained gloves would be provided. I wouldn’t be able to shower after my shift, though, nor would my clothes be laundered (I was welcome to wear a mask — provided I brought my own). All this for $17.20 an hour, which works out to $300 less than I’d be receiving in California unemployment benefits. 

Dylan isn’t afraid of contracting the virus himself given his age (32), but he lives with his parents who are in their 70s and worries constantly about bringing the virus home to them. His dad is especially at risk as he suffers from respiratory issues and gets sick easily. And so, like the others, Dylan does his best to be preventative, spraying his belongings with Lysol prior to entering the house, immediately isolating his clothing and showering before having contact with his parents. 

But the fear of infecting them remains “very real,” he tells me. “If I could live anywhere else during this time, I definitely would.”