Fatalistic Grocery Workers Demand Hazard Pay, Saying “Infection Is Inevitable”

Hamilton Nolan March 30, 2020

A sign posted in front of a Trader Joe's reminds shoppers of purchase limits as a woman wearing a facemask due to the coronavirus epidemic enters the store on March 18, 2020 in Monrovia, California. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Gro­cery store employ­ees find them­selves the sub­ject of wide­spread pub­lic acclaim for con­tin­u­ing to work dur­ing the coro­n­avirus cri­sis. But front-line work­ers at gro­cery chains across the coun­try say they want some­thing more tan­gi­ble than con­grat­u­la­tions: haz­ard pay. And they are win­ning it with spon­ta­neous orga­niz­ing cam­paigns forged in the cru­cible of a nation­al crisis.

Since the out­break of the coro­n­avirus, at least a dozen sep­a­rate cam­paigns by gro­cery employ­ees have popped up on Cowork​er​.org, an online orga­niz­ing plat­form that allows work­ers to cre­ate cam­paigns for work­place change them­selves. Some have already won haz­ard pay at their stores; oth­ers are locked in strug­gles with intran­si­gent employ­ers. Work­ers involved in five sep­a­rate cam­paigns told us of stress and dan­ger­ous con­di­tions at work — but also of the pow­er of col­lec­tive action.

At Mar­ket of Choice, an Ore­gon-based gro­cery chain, the CEO has grant­ed a $2 per hour pay increase (less than the $3 per hour work­ers asked for, but an increase nonethe­less). A.B. Car­lin, a piz­za cook at Mar­ket of Choice, says the increase is not enough, and that their col­leagues remain tense” and stressed” about their own safe­ty. It irks me that cor­po­rate isn’t will­ing to call it haz­ard pay,’” Car­lin said. We’re being exposed to haz­ards. Our work is increas­ing­ly haz­ardous. Not call­ing it haz­ard pay reads as an attempt to obfus­cate that. Every­one at work seems gen­er­al­ly grate­ful for the boost but also con­cerned about the lack of oth­er pro­tec­tions or guar­an­tees being offered.”

Employ­ees at New Sea­sons Mar­ket, a gro­cery chain in the North­west­ern Unit­ed States, also secured bonus pay and oth­er ben­e­fits dur­ing the cri­sis. A cashier at a store in Port­land, Ore­gon, says that she appre­ci­ates the ben­e­fits, but doubts that the mod­est increas­es make up for the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al toll that the ongo­ing cri­sis is tak­ing on work­ers there.

The amount of emo­tion­al labor that’s expect­ed of cashiers (espe­cial­ly some­one like me, a friend­ly young woman) has always both­ered me, but at this time it is so height­ened and for me per­son­al­ly. It has become so intense I’ve asked to be assigned tasks oth­er than ring­ing peo­ple up as much as pos­si­ble. Staff in every depart­ment are stressed and over­worked and wor­ried for their fam­i­lies,” John­son said. I don’t real­ly know if any amount of mon­ey would make work­ing in this envi­ron­ment and being exposed to this lev­el of risk feel worth it. Per­son­al­ly, I live with my grand­moth­er and moth­er so it’s just real­ly hard to know if con­tin­u­ing to come to work is the right choice.”

Those are the stress­es on work­ers at chains that have grant­ed some out­right form of haz­ard pay. Else­where, gains can be more murky. One of the most promi­nent gro­cery orga­niz­ing cam­paigns is at Trad­er Joe’s, where more than 20,000 employ­ees have signed a peti­tion ask­ing for haz­ard pay, at the same time that an inter­nal group has been call­ing pub­licly for a union dri­ve. The com­pa­ny says it is set­ting up a spe­cial bonus pool” for employ­ees — mon­ey that work­ers say will come out to a raise of less than $2 per hour for the past month, which falls short of the petition’s call for time-and-a-half pay for every­one as long as the cri­sis drags on.

A group of Trad­er Joe’s employ­ees involved in the orga­niz­ing cam­paign, who answered ques­tions anony­mous­ly, crit­i­cized half-mea­sures” by man­age­ment in the face of an over­whelm­ing pub­lic health threat. Work­ers described fac­ing uncer­tain­ty, enor­mous crowds at stores, answer­ing the same hand­ful of ques­tions over and over again from fran­tic cus­tomers, and a lack of man­age­ment coor­di­na­tion on a nation­al lev­el that meant that dif­fer­ent stores end­ed up with dif­fer­ent enforce­ment poli­cies on basic safe­ty ques­tions like the right of cashiers to wear gloves as they worked. The com­pa­ny is leav­ing the health and safe­ty of the base of their pyra­mid up to the mer­cy of each store’s cap­tain and region­al man­ag­er,” one employ­ee said.

All of that takes place in an atmos­phere of pal­pa­ble” stress and long hours, in which per­fect safe­ty is impos­si­ble. Asked about the fear of becom­ing infect­ed with coro­n­avirus on the job, one work­er replied, infec­tion is inevitable.”

Adding to the dis­sat­is­fac­tion is the per­cep­tion that the com­pa­ny is using the cri­sis as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to under­mine the nascent union dri­ve and spread mis­in­for­ma­tion. The work­ers who cre­at­ed the Cowork​er​.org peti­tion say that The com­pa­ny used the exis­tence of this peti­tion to lie to work­ers, telling them it was a trick to get peo­ple to sign their name to the union effort.” Anoth­er Trad­er Joe’s employ­ee sent a pho­to­graph of a print­ed sheet of Hud­dle notes” — talk­ing points that man­agers use in employ­ee meet­ings — that includ­ed a sec­tion of com­mon anti-union talk­ing points, such as Unions are busi­ness­es. They need rev­enue, and they get rev­enue through union dues.”

Many gro­cery work­ers are hold­ing fast in their demands for com­pen­sa­tion that they feel match­es the scale for the risk they’re tak­ing — demands that can them­selves be heart­break­ing­ly mod­est. Near­ly 4,500 employ­ees of the gro­cery chain Fred Mey­er signed a peti­tion for haz­ard pay, and the com­pa­ny has giv­en them, instead, a one-time bonus of $300 for full-time employ­ees, and $150 for part-time employ­ees. Lau­ren Hen­dricks, a Fred Mey­er cake dec­o­ra­tor in Wash­ing­ton state, says a $2 per hour raise would be more appro­pri­ate. That is what I have seen oth­er com­pa­nies doing, and I think it’s a great thing because it ensures part time employ­ees notice a dif­fer­ence in their pay­check as well,” Hen­dricks said. Risk­ing our lives — our health and well­be­ing — for reg­u­lar pay isn’t worth it. I had a cus­tomer straight up cough in my face the oth­er day, he instant­ly apol­o­gized after he real­ized what he had done, but this is the per­fect exam­ple of what we deal with on a dai­ly basis.”

Then there are the gro­cery chains where work­ers are still strug­gling to win any­thing mean­ing­ful at all. At Pub­lix, a large chain down south, almost 7,000 work­ers have signed a peti­tion call­ing for time-and-a-half haz­ard pay. All of my cowork­ers are sleep-deprived (plen­ty of them work­ing 70+ hour weeks — it’s a free for all with over­time right now), they’re stressed out, on the verge of a com­plete melt­down, and it has made us far more agi­tat­ed than I’ve ever seen,” said Sum­mer Fitzger­ald, a clerk at a Pub­lix in Charleston, South Car­oli­na. We’ve worked through hol­i­days and hur­ri­canes, and I’ve nev­er seen any­thing like this.”

Their thanks so far, she said, has been a $50 Pub­lix gift card, and a lit­tle snack table in the break­room with free food.”

While the erup­tion of work­place activism inside gro­cery stores that have nev­er had a labor union is inspir­ing, the larg­er con­text is still grim. Even as gro­cery employ­ees enjoy their high­est lev­el of pub­lic sup­port in U.S. his­to­ry, most of their cam­paigns are demand­ing tem­po­rary, rather than per­ma­nent, increas­es in com­pen­sa­tion and ben­e­fits. The nature of haz­ard pay itself is that it expires when the haz­ard” is over. While some union­ized gro­cery work­ers will like­ly hang on to their pay increas­es when this is all over, many oth­ers are skep­ti­cal they will get any last­ing ben­e­fits. (“I fore­see a piz­za par­ty as reward for our ser­vice, at most,” one work­er said.)

Still, most gro­cery work­ers say they are get­ting more com­pli­ments and sym­pa­thy from cus­tomers than they have ever seen before. And A.B. Car­lin, from Mar­ket of Choice, says there may be at least one sil­ver lin­ing: My par­ents have stopped ask­ing if I’m going to get a real job.’”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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