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Grocery store workers protest ‘unsafe’ conditions, lack of sick time pay

Catherine McGloin
Grocery store workers protest ‘unsafe’ conditions, lack of sick time pay
Grocery store workers demonstrate outside the Wholefoods in the South End. Catherine McGloin photo

Boston-area grocery store workers lined up six feet apart, faces masked, along Harrison Avenue outside Whole Foods on the morning of April 7.

They were joined by compassionate customers and workers’ rights activists to demand that employers Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Shaw’s provide more masks and gloves, fully paid family and sick leave, and time-and-a-half “hazard pay” during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People have really experienced a lot of abuse going on,” said Debra Falzoi, 43, a protester and lobbyist for the Workplace Dignity Act, who drove in from central Massachusetts to show her support. “We’re hearing more and more staff are not getting personal protective equipment … are receiving salary reductions and no paid family or sick leave,” said Falzoi. “They’re not really caring about the welfare of their employees.”

Despite the megaphone and signs that read, “Protect the front line, not the bottom line,” Falzoi said it did not look like a normal protest.

But this is the new normal. A world where even community activists must adhere to social distancing rules, grocery workers risk their lives serving customers and shelf-stacking is a hazardous occupation.

The South End protest came on the same day that the death of a Market Basket employee in Salem due to coronavirus was confirmed. Positive COVID-19 cases have been reported at all four of the stores involved in last week’s action.

“The narrative is that we’re all in this together,” said Falzoi, co-founder of End Workplace Abuse, “but it’s an interesting message when the employers aren’t doing everything they can … there is a sense of greed.”

Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Shaw’s are offering associates an additional two weeks of paid sick leave, have stepped up deep-cleaning and are supplying protective equipment to staff. In line with new guidance issued by Gov. Charlie Baker’s office last week, employers are also limiting the number of people allowed into stores, operating at 40% standard occupancy.

“There is no higher priority for us than taking care of our team members,” said a Whole Foods spokesperson, who also confirmed each employee is receiving an additional $2 per hour on top of hourly base pay and receiving “enhanced overtime.” Those in quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19 will receive two weeks of additional paid time off, the spokesperson told the Scope.

But employees and customers say this isn’t enough.

In an anonymous account, shared on Workers Speak Out’s blog, one Whole Foods employee explained why, for them, Whole Foods’ response to COVID-19 is inadequate.

“Amazon has allowed us to take unlimited sick days during March and April. But there’s a catch — we would only be paid for 5 of them,” wrote the anonymous worker, who also described the additional $2 per hour “hazard pay” offered by the grocery chain as “shameful.” For them, this extra cash totals $50 a week. “We need real hazard pay of time and a half for all hours worked, period,” they wrote.

“I’ve been transitioning away from Whole Foods towards Trader Joe’s,” said South Boston shopper Deb Robison, 51.

“Whole Foods is a very wealthy organization, Jeff Bezos is one of the wealthiest men in the world,” said Robison. “Surely these companies can look after their employees.”

Whole Foods is owned by Amazon CEO Bezos who, as of April 2020, is worth $117.2 billion.

At Robison’s preferred grocery store, Trader Joe’s, store hours have been revised and, for those displaying symptoms of COVID-19, staff are offered two weeks of extra paid sick leave.

On her most recent visit to Trader Joe’s in the Seaport district, Robison said she observed six-feet-apart checkout line spacing, hand sanitizer stations and wipes to clean shopping baskets.

Robison has an auto-immune condition that puts her in the at-risk category for contracting COVID-19. She called the store manager to find out if they were offering special services for people like her who are immunocompromised.

“The manager was super helpful,” Robison said, even offering to build a basket of groceries ready to collect so Robison need only come into the store to pay. “I just thought that was super kind, especially as she’s probably swamped right now.”

But Trader Joe’s management is accused of disseminating “sharp anti-union propaganda” during the pandemic, according to a copy of the invitation to protest on April 7, obtained by the Scope.

In an email leaked to the New York Times earlier this month, Trader Joe’s store managers have been urged to discourage employees from unionizing by warning employees about the cost of union dues.

Robison was disappointed to hear these accusations.

“I thought Trader Joe’s was a good company,” she said.

Trader Joe’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Although the four companies were the focus of last week’s action, it’s not just Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Shaw’s facing criticism for their response to COVID-19.

Ann Smith, 36, a cashier at a Dollar Tree store in Wyoming, told the Scope she had to choose between self-quarantining after her brother contacted COVID-19 and keeping her job. She said she is disabled and at risk of contracting the virus, yet management at her store threatened to fire her if she took time off to self-quarantine. In addition, they told her not to wear protective equipment and have not imposed limits on store capacity. She said she cannot afford to fall ill, as she has no health insurance.

Beyond Massachusetts, legislatures nationwide are taking action to protect grocery store workers. Maryland joined New Jersey yesterday in legally requiring shoppers to wear masks in stores. In Los Angeles essential businesses must provide masks to workers, or reimburse them for purchases. On the west coast, San Francisco lawmakers are considering a proposal that mandates gloves, masks and hand sanitizer be distributed to all essential business workers.

“The thing being exposed is that more people, the people living paycheck to paycheck, need safety nets,” said Falzoi.

As grocery shopping around the nation remains a risky but essential task, “I hope that these organizations step up and take care of their employees,” said Robison. “I’m definitely going to keep watching.”

Catherine McGloin is editor of The Scope, a project of the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

Do you work in the service industry? Do you know someone who does? Twelve graduate research students specializing in Media Advocacy: Strategic Communications for Social Change, at Northeastern University are collecting information from service workers about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their lives. Take their survey and share your story.

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