Grocery Workers Have Always Been Essential. Now They’re Holding Up the Country

America’s grocers, more crucial than ever, struggle to maintain safety and sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The line at the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles starts in the parking lot and snakes down and around Hyperion Ave. By the time the store opens to the general public at 9 a.m. (after its seniors-only hour from 8 to 9), the line is already over 100 people deep, with shoppers metered out every six feet, patiently awaiting entry to the store, which is only allowing 20 people in at once.

grocery worker
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When you make it to the front of the line, a staffer is there to direct human traffic, sending people in alternating directions to avoid crowding within the store itself. Cashiers no longer bag your items to avoid unnecessary contact. Most of the staff wears gloves, and some wear masks; the same goes for the jittery customers moving through the aisles as swiftly as possible.

This is now what it’s like to grocery shop, a once-mundane activity that has suddenly and unwittingly taken on a starring role in the coronavirus drama unfolding across the country. Spooked shoppers, being told to stay home as much as possible, are raiding the shelves when they do go out, leading to shortages on basic supplies like toilet paper and flour. For workers, the narrative has gone from bad to worse: now on the frontlines of a pandemic, they are begging for hazard pay and safety gear; organizing strikes and “sick outs;” and, in a cruelly predictable development, now dying for their jobs.

Grocery Store Workers
FREDERIC J. BROWN / Getty Images

That many of these workers are already underpaid and uninsured highlights a very real class divide between those who can stay home and those who have no choice but to continue going to work. In Los Angeles, this week, officials urged residents to stay inside if it all possible, including avoiding trips to the grocery store, to slow the spread of the virus. It remains to be seen if and how this directive will affect the livelihoods of those working in stores.

“When most people take a job as a grocery worker, they didn’t think that at some point they’d be considered an essential worker, holding up the nation,” said Tory Gundelach, a grocery analyst with the market research agency Kantar. “The role of grocery workers has dramatically changed in the past month.”

There are a few bright spots: Minnesota and Vermont officially classified grocery clerks as emergency workers, which entitles them to free childcare. Big-box retailers such as Kroger and Target have bumped their hourly rates by $1-3, and/or offering bonuses to employees to continue working. Some companies have begun providing masks and gloves to employees (or at the very least, allowing them to wear their own after initially discouraging it), instituting more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts, and installing plexiglass screens (essentially human sneeze guards) to limit contact at the checkout aisle, Gundelach said.

And, far from the national spotlight, some small, independent grocers are stepping up to feed their communities with more determination than ever before.

Take Rick’s Produce, located just a few blocks away from the aforementioned Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles. Rick’s is a jewel box of a shop, maybe 500 square-feet total, in a storefront that used to be a gelato shop. It’s less a grocery and, true to its name, more of a brick-and-mortar produce stand, primarily trafficking in fruits and vegetables from owner Rick Dominguez’s farm in nearby Fallbrook, along with some pantry items (bread, olive oil, nut butters, jams) from other local purveyors.

Grocery Store Workers
Rick's Produce

Dominguez, an East L.A. native, opened his storefront along with a partner in 2017, after nearly 13 years of selling his produce—he specializes in avocados, citrus, and tropical fruits—at local farmers’ markets. “We wanted a farmstand that would be open seven days a week,” he says. He keeps the display at the cheery storefront piled high with lush leafy greens, baskets of guavas and limes, and clam shells of dusky dates and sweet-tart berries.

He also sold wholesale to nearby restaurants and catering operations, a huge part of the business’s income, which dried up virtually overnight with Los Angeles’s “shelter in place” order on March 15. “All of my restaurant accounts closed,” said Dominguez. “I have crops that I already estimated for what I’d sell yearly, and nature doesn’t stop.” On top of that, many of the city’s farmers’ markets, where Dominguez still had booths, closed temporarily while organizers scrambled to find ways to make them socially-distanced-compliant.

This left Dominguez with a surplus of both produce and employees, who he is trying to keep on payroll.

“Since everything started, it’s just been so fast, I haven’t really had time to think,” he said. “I was worried about laying people off, but then I noticed an increase in sales of our grocery items, and a decrease in sales of our menu items.”. Up until recently, the shop offered a selection of prepared items like smoothies and sandwiches, which, pre-pandemic, made up nearly 80 percent of sales. Now his staff is barely making any acai bowls or turkey-avocado sandwiches. Instead, produce and grocery sales have ballooned by nearly 200 percent. “People want to cook,” he said.

He quickly tweaked operations to meet this new demand: limiting customers to a one-person-at-a-time rule within the store itself, and setting up an online shop with curbside pickup and third-party delivery so customers can order and pay for goods in advance. He has provided gloves and masks to all employees, and stations them six feet apart in the tiny shop, which has led to shorter shifts as fewer workers rotate in and out. Each staffer now has a single job per shift: handling money, packing produce, taking out the trash. And Dominguez himself, a well-recognized fixture in the shop, is attempting to minimize socializing. “A lot of people know me in the neighborhood and they want to chat. I’m not trying to be rude, but make it quick,” he said.

The setup at Rick’s is somewhat distinct from many other grocers. “The reason our business is working right now is because we are 100% hands-on for the whole operation, from farming to retailing,” Dominguez says. The same isn’t true for most grocers, who rely on a complex network of distributors to stock their shelves, which means exponentially more touch points and a higher risk of exposure as goods pass through many hands.

Unlike restaurants and bars, an industry which may never recover from the virus, groceries of all sizes will likely continue to operate and see a major boost in profits over the next several months. I asked Laura Strange, spokesperson for the National Grocers Association, what shoppers can do to help support grocery workers and ensure safety on all sides during less-frequent-but-still necessary grocery runs. “First and foremost, shoppers who are feeling sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 should stay at home and not go into the store,” she said. She also cited basics such as employing proper six-feet social distancing, washing hands before and after shopping, and washing and sanitizing reusable shopping bags before and after grocery trips.

All of this seems fairly common sense, to me, though deeper questions about how to support and protect these now-essential workers remain unanswered. Gundelach, the analyst, offered one additional piece of advice that bears sharing, whether you’re shopping at a little guy like Rick’s or making a Costco run: “Be nice. These workers are coming in and putting themselves at risk. While it’s understandable that shoppers might get frustrated when products are out of stock, don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Don’t take it out on the employees. It’s very likely not their fault that there’s no toilet paper. So just be nice.”

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