Tekele Abraha does not run marathons, but she wears Hoka shoes. This thick-soled choice of elite runners can cost more than $150 a pair, nearly a day’s pay for Abraha, who wears them to cushion the long hours she spends on concrete floors, six days a week. She hopes the shoes will stave off the grinding joint and back pain that afflicts many of her coworkers.
Abraha is a grocery worker. The shoes mark one of many unseen tolls of her job.
We talk in an airless, subterranean breakroom at Safeway store 1048 in Arlington, Va., a typical, prosperous suburb of Washington, D.C. The low-slung store sits partially submerged next to an underground parking garage on the main drag of the Rosslyn neighborhood, full of gleaming office buildings and apartment towers that look like office buildings. The store’s staff is as diverse as Embassy Row, just across the Potomac River: Black and white, Eastern European, East African.
Abraha, a 42-year-old single mother of two, grew up in poverty in Ethiopia with her mother and four brothers, unable to afford three meals a day. She came to the United States at 17, without knowing English, and worked three fast food jobs. Sometimes, she slept in a McDonald’s to save time. Eventually, Abraha scraped together $15,000, enough to buy her mother a six-bedroom house in Ethiopia, which fills her with pride.
For the past 18 years, Abraha has worked at Safeway. Six days a week, late into the night, she helps run the front of the store. Her diligence is matched by the toll it has taken on her during the pandemic. In fear of bringing home coronavirus, she has not kissed her two college-age children since March 2020, even though they live with her.
“Every time I go home, I was insecure,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna take something with me. I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna lose my children.’” Tears well up in her eyes when she contemplates the past year. But she is not one to complain.
“I don’t have any choice,” she says. “That’s life. I have to pay the bills.”
For many people, the past year has been a shocking break from the normal rhythms of their personal and professional lives. And then there are grocery workers.
The lives of grocery workers have continued as usual, but with an added dose of deadly risk. They never really signed up for it. Though less celebrated than nurses or paramedics, grocery workers are quintessential frontline workers — the ones who have kept showing up so the rest of us can survive.
Like their counterparts across the country, the employees of Safeway 1048 have kept on working through a dangerous year. Their employer has given them mask policies, more cleaning in stores and a fleeting dose of hazard pay, but their lived experience has shown them the safety net has holes big enough to fall through. The experience has left many of them bitter.
Safeway is neither an outlier on safety issues nor a uniquely bad employer. It has given out personal protective equipment and established a contact-tracing program with up to two weeks of quarantine pay. The company also says it intends to offer the vaccine to every worker as soon as their city or county makes it available to grocery workers. The workers at Safeway 1048, despite being eligible per state guidelines, had not been offered the vaccine by early March. (The company said that “our pharmacies in northern Virginia are under the direction of the [Virginia Department of Health] not to vaccinate anyone under the age of 65.”)
A review of policies at some of Safeway’s biggest direct competitors — Walmart and Costco, as well as grocery conglomerates Kroger, Publix and Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant, Stop & Shop) — shows that Safeway’s policies on hazard pay, sick leave, masks, worker safety and vaccinations are very much in line with the industry. It almost seems as if the grocery industry’s employers, customers and regulators have settled on a set of standards without bothering to ask the workers whether they think those standards are adequate.
The one thing Safeway’s workers have going for them is their union. They have seniority rights, pay minimums, guaranteed vacations, a grievance procedure and other basic protections their non-union counterparts lack. Safeway has been unionized since at least 1935, when it signed an agreement with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which later merged with the Retail Clerks International to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Today, more than 6,000 Safeway workers in D.C. and the surrounding states are part of UFCW Local 400. Since Virginia is a so-called right-to-work state, no worker is required to pay union dues; about three-quarters of the 65 employees at Safeway 1048 are dues-paying members.
Their longtime union rep is Heith Fenner, a solicitous, ruddy-faced man who roams the store greeting everyone by name and checking in on new issues weekly. A former grocery worker who has served as a union rep at seven different grocery chains, Fenner is a virtual encyclopedia of the industry’s problems.
“Safeway runs a skeleton crew,” he says. “They run almost short-handed, particularly in key positions. When you get a small [Covid-19] outbreak in the store, that leaves you shorthanded. Even worse, it becomes a catastrophe for trying to run the store when you have four or five people out.”
It is not hard to imagine how this corporate dedication to reducing costs could create a strong disincentive for Safeway to pay close attention to safety measures, because safety measures can be expensive. Paid sick leave while workers quarantine will inevitably raise labor costs. Employees say, over the past year, their store’s management has shown little institutional concern for worker health and safety, consistently prioritizing profits and corporate reputation over the lives of workers.
Anthony Sistrunk, a fast-talking, 39-year-old D.C. native who has worked for Safeway since he was 17, had a rough 2020.
“The year started off fucked up,” Sistrunk remembers. In January 2020, just as he was coming off a cancer scare, he had to have his appendix removed. He returned to work after recovering, but one day soon after he felt so dizzy he went home after only a couple of hours. He slept all day, woke up at night feeling bad and passed out on his floor. After a trip to the emergency room, Sistrunk got the bad news: He was the first employee of Safeway 1048 to test positive for Covid.
Dehydrated, coughing and his head throbbing, Sistrunk went on Facebook and made a quick post so his friends and coworkers would know he tested positive. He was primarily concerned about the health of his coworkers — masks were not yet mandatory, even for employees.
“And then,” Sistrunk says, “all hell broke loose.”
Shortly after his social media post, he says, he received a call from the Safeway human resources department, asking pointedly if he was “badmouthing” the company.
“I was offended,” Sistrunk says. “I felt like Safeway was trying to stop any kind of bad media. They didn’t want any kind of uproar.”
Sistrunk was so sick he didn’t return to work for seven weeks. He lost his sense of taste and smell and had trouble breathing. “The worst thing was the fatigue,” he says. “I felt like someone snatched my soul.”
Fenner called him every other day to check in. Sistrunk did receive paid sick leave — two-thirds of his average wage — as a benefit of his union health insurance plan. “God forbid if you’re not a union member,” Sistrunk says with the tone of someone looking back on a narrowly avoided disaster. “You’re screwed.”
When Sistrunk began with the company 22 years ago, he says it felt like an exclusive and highly valued job. He had to write an essay with his application about why he wanted to work there. There were employee outings: summer cookouts, bowling parties, crab feasts. But all of that faded away as the years went by and, it seemed to Sistrunk, management focused more and more intensely on profits. He sounds wistful when he reflects on his years there. “It’s not that family bond anymore,” he says.
Safeway is one of 20 grocery chains owned by Albertsons Companies, whose biggest investor is the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, named for the three-headed dog of Greek mythology that guards the gates of hell to make sure no one gets out. According to Andrew Whelan, a spokesperson for Albertsons, “When we learn that an associate has a confirmed case of Covid-19, our crisis response team conducts a close contacts investigation and may recommend that additional members of the store team self-quarantine.” The company offers up to 80 hours of “quarantine pay” for those who meet its standards. Whelan says the store is “appropriately staffed.”
Safeway uses the definition of “close contact” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an infected person per day. It’s an extremely high bar in a store where everyone is moving around. Consequently, employees and the union say management at Safeway 1048 rarely tells a worker to quarantine.
I got a firsthand view of this dynamic in action. When I went to the store to talk with workers, nearly everyone was discussing that an employee from the cut-fruit section had tested positive. I saw where the fruit-cutting happens: a windowless corner of steel tables in back by the breakroom, where several people work at once. If I worked in such close quarters with a Covid-positive person, I would certainly be worried.
Fenner says, after management was alerted to the situation by the union, they “cleaned and sanitized” the store but did not order any quarantines or alert employees to the positive test. Whelan disputes this, saying that one employee was quarantined due to “close contact.” Whelan also says the company informs the staff when an employee tests positive, but workers say they usually hear through word of mouth or from the union.
Then there is the matter of customers who shop without masks. Every employee I spoke with cited this persistent minority of customers as a threat to their health, particularly because workers are not empowered to do anything about the situation except to offer a mask to customers.
“I’ve been called ‘bitch’ so many times” for asking customers to wear a mask, Abraha says. “I wish the company took it seriously.”
The Safeway store does not have a security guard, meaning regular workers and supervisors become de facto security guards and mask-checkers. Calling the police doesn’t feel like an option. “By the time you call the cops,” Sistrunk says, the maskless shoppers “are out of here.”
Whelan acknowledges that while the store has signs telling customers to wear masks, “If a customer refuses to wear a mask and to leave the store, we permit the customer to continue shopping in order to avoid conflicts that would put the store director or other employees and customers at risk.”
Jason Winbush, a bearded, 44-year-old food clerk who has been at Safeway for 28 years, has a wife and five children at home. The combination of management’s failure to alert employees directly about positive tests or to find a way to make customers wear masks has convinced him the company does “not at all” take the safety of its workers seriously. Winbush has even used some of his vacation days to get time away from the store because the mask situation worried him so much.
“It’s starting to get [to be] too much,” Winbush says. “It’s stressful. Very stressful. It’s written on the wall: Money is more important than your employees. And that’s not right, cause you don’t know if we have preexisting conditions, if my kids have preexisting conditions.”
Stuart Allison, a man with a pleasant Southern drawl and the enormous hands of a heavyweight boxer, has been cutting meat at Safeway 1048 for 25 years. That is less than half of the time he has been working for Safeway, where he began as a meat cutter in 1968. (After more than a half-century with the company, Allison makes $24 an hour.) He is 79, works six 8‑hour shifts a week, exercises regularly and appears perfectly capable of wrestling a man half his age.
Allison remembers seeing people die during a flu epidemic in the 1940s, and those experiences have left him a remarkably calm person. Even though Allison contracted a mild case of Covid in summer 2020, he has never allowed the events of the past year to throw him into a panic. “Things come up like that; they don’t disturb me,” he says. “Whatever it is, I just take it. I guess I’m more a positive thinker than a negative thinker. This is not my first time being around a virus.”
But even Allison, a pinnacle of equanimity who has little fear for his own health, finds his hackles raised by what he sees as management’s lax attitude toward customers shopping without masks in the midst of a pandemic. “They were saying, ‘You gotta wait on people that don’t have masks on,’” Allison says. “I think management is going along with what their superiors are telling them. But that doesn’t work, to me. … I told all the checkers, ‘If they come in without a mask, don’t wait on ‘em.’”
The stress over worker health reached a high mark in the days surrounding the January 6 Trump rally and storming of the U.S. Capitol. Many of former President Donald Trump’s supporters who had come to Washington for the event stayed in the hotels that dot the blocks around the Safeway in Rosslyn. Many of them came into the store with an aggressive disregard for safety.
“We had a really rough time that week,” says Michele Miler, a 61-year-old file maintenance manager who has served as Safeway 1048’s union shop steward for the past 25 years. “They were coming in without no mask.”
In fact, the employees I spoke with remember the week of January 6 as one in which they were left to fend for themselves. As our nation’s political insanity invaded their workplace, some workers say they refused to serve maskless Trump supporters; one says she just argued with the maskless and endured insults; most said they were constantly uncomfortable and disappointed that Safeway did nothing to save them.
Sistrunk says that when he asked a manager to intervene, the response was that the company didn’t want bad press in an age when everyone has a cell phone.
Abraha says some of the Trump supporters ignored her request to wear a mask; one even handed her his used mask and demanded she throw it away for him. “If I call the police, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, because of politics,” Abraha says. “What about if I lose my job? … It’s crazy.”
The pandemic has been good for business at grocery stores. Everyone remembers the empty shelves in spring 2020 as people stocked up, just in case. Albertsons saw its sales rise a remarkable 47% in March of 2020; by December, year-over-year sales were still running 12% higher. All of these sales were enabled by the fact that thousands of grocery workers, just like those at Safeway 1048, continued to come to work, putting their own health at risk to ensure stores could sell food.
What did those workers get in return? At Safeway, they got a $2 “hazard pay” wage bonus from March 15 to June 13, 2020, with two one-time bonuses adding up to about $350 for full-time employees (less for part-timers, the vast majority of the workers). In other words, hazard pay ended when the country was seeing around 22,000 new daily cases of the coronavirus. Even when cases rose to 300,000 per day by January 2021 — a 1,264% increase in risk — hazard pay never came back.
Whelan, the Albertsons spokesperson, justified this discrepancy by saying, “We are not currently offering appreciation pay at this time because businesses large and small across our operating areas have reopened and resumed operations.”
This argument is a bit of sleight of hand — right down to the use of the phrase “appreciation pay” rather than hazard pay. First, state governments ignored public health risks and reduced business restrictions (which fueled Covid surges and increased the number of hazards for workers). Then, companies used those policies as an excuse not to take more action or offer workers more compensation. Poof: Thanks to poor public health policies, businesses made their own obligations disappear.
The flagrant hypocrisy of praising frontline workers as heroes while denying them payment for their heroic work is a textbook example of corporate greed and the primacy that shareholders have over labor.
And that so few grocery workers emerged from 2020 with long-term raises is a textbook example of union workers squandering their labor leverage. The moment certainly marks a national failure by the UFCW, the nation’s biggest food and retail union, which has been unable to secure any real lasting gains for its members, even as public regard for grocery workers soared.
Every Safeway employee I spoke with thought that, at a minimum, the $2 hazard pay increase should have become permanent. They wish everyone would wear a mask. They wish they did not have to rely on word of mouth to learn someone from work has Covid.
They live in fear of getting their families sick. They rise at 4 a.m., work six days a week and casually discuss the many ways the job has destroyed their bodies.
They do this whole routine for decades for, if they are lucky, a $20 wage.
If they had stopped — if they had shut down the nation’s groceries — there would have been panic. But they worked.
From the perspective of the workers themselves, 2020 was a year of swallowing harsh insult after harsh insult. When I asked Marilyn Williams, who has worked at Safeway 1048 for the past eight years, what she thought of the quick disappearance of hazard pay, she paused for a long moment, then said, “Ha. Ha.
“That’s my reaction.
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.