2020-03-30
Story

An employee re-stocks a mostly empty meat display at a Denver supermarket on March 18, 2020.

Photos by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Jenny McCoy

Mark, a 30-something who lives near Boulder, thinks he will likely contract the novel coronavirus. Many of his co-workers, he said, feel the same. (Mark is not his real name; he asked that we not use it, because he didn’t have permission from his employer to speak publicly. The names of the other non-managerial grocery store staff in this story have also been changed, for the same reason.)

“We just hope that we’re lucky enough to not have a bad time with it,” he said.

Mark works full-time at Ideal Market in Boulder, one of the few local businesses deemed “critical” and thus still open to the public after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide “Stay at Home” executive order on Wednesday, March 25, in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The lives of many Coloradans hinges on your ability to be able to stay at home,” Polis said in a recent tweet about the executive order, which instructs residents to not leave their residences, barring “critical activities.”

But that order makes exceptions for Coloradans like Mark, whose jobs require them to continue interacting—sometimes very closely—with the public. And the very nature of such jobs makes it difficult for workers to adhere to the social distancing and other guidance that public health officials are urging Americans to follow to reduce the spread of the virus.

At Ideal Market, for example, maintaining the recommended distance of six feet (or more) from others is “not really possible,” Mark said on Saturday, March 21. The store is “so small,” he explained, and allowing such a gap is “really not practical in a grocery store setting.”

“There have been some customers that have tried to do that and then get very frustrated at us because they'll ask us for help or something, and then we'll approach them,” he said. “Or they'll leave their carts somewhere and then get angry that we're too close to it.”

This hasn’t happened often, though, he added, and on Monday, March 23, Ideal Market, which is owned by Whole Foods (and by extension, Amazon), implemented restrictions that make it much more feasible to actually maintain that six-foot distance. Now, only 20 customers can be inside at once, and employee shifts are staggered to spread out workers, Mark said.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the company could not accommodate interview requests, but shared a link to the company’s response to COVID-19. (Contacted again for reaction to Mark’s comments for this article, Whole Foods did not respond.) At some Denver-area Whole Foods stores, new measures were observed the day after the governor’s executive order went into effect, including private security guards assisting with forming queues of customers to enter the store; employees wiping down shopping cart handles with a bleach solution at the store entrances; guidance on maintaining safe distances taped to the floor at checkout areas and butcher counters; and glass partition shields erected at the cash register, between the cashier and customer at the payment stations. Similar precautions have not been observed to the same degree at other Colorado supermarket chains, with floor tape the one ubiquitous exception.

But even if mandated distances can be observed, grocery store workers are still exposed to the public much more frequently and at greater volumes than the Coloradans self-quarantining at home.

“Thank you to all the grocery store workers and supply chain workers, because they're on the frontlines with us,” said Daniel Pastula, MD, an infectious disease expert at UCHealth. “I understand being on the front line is potentially anxiety-provoking, especially since you can't necessarily telework when working in a grocery store.”

Amy, an hourly employee at a King Soopers in Fort Collins, feels that anxiety acutely. On Friday, March 13, three days after Gov. Polis declared a state of emergency in Colorado over COVID-19, customers streamed into the store, panic-shopping the shelves bare.

“I could not stock fast enough to keep up with the way people were buying,” said Amy.

Her department nearly doubled their sales that Friday. But the crowds that boosted profits also ushered in a dark cloud.

“There was this sense of dread, this panic, like a pall that came down over everything,” Amy said on Friday, March 20. “It's still there, it’s palpable, you can feel it.”

Amy, who lives with her two children and boyfriend, said she isn’t that concerned about whether she’d be able to survive the virus if she were to contract it. But she is worried about her parents’ health. Amy’s mom has a chronic health condition, she said. “Something like this would, could probably kill her. That scares me.”

“Flippant people” also scare her. Amy describes college students who shop at the store and think the virus isn’t real. Some of her co-workers don’t seem to be taking it seriously, either.

“I've got a coworker that thinks this whole thing is a government conspiracy to read our minds, and it pisses her off that they closed the bars and restaurants,” said Amy. Other coworkers, she added, don’t seem to be heeding public health urgings to stay home when sick.

“Yesterday, one of the head clerks was in there and he was coughing and sick, and then I heard somebody else who works there be like, ‘I think I'm coming down with whatever it is you got.’ And I’m like, ‘Why is anybody here with anything?’” Amy said on Friday, March 20. The typical attitude surrounding sickness at work, she said, is “show up and power through.”

In response to these comments, Jessica Trowbridge, corporate affairs manager for King Soopers, said via email: “The health and wellbeing of our associates, customers and communities is our top priority. As such, we are following all best practices provided by the CDC, state, county and local officials. We are encouraging our associates to closely monitor their health and if they exhibit flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue) at work, they should go home and contact their doctor. If an associate has flu-like symptoms at home, they should not come to work.”

Kroger, the corporation that owns King Soopers, announced on March 21 new sick-leave policies to include up to two weeks of paid time off for self-isolation and symptoms “as verified by an accredited health care professional.” Trowbridge added that the company also made available “additional resources” through a company-sponsored fund that provides financial assistance to employees who are experiencing “a financial hardship due to an unexpected or emergency situation.”

But even the expanded policy falls short of the CDC’s current interim guidance for businesses, which says employers should not require doctor’s notes in order to validate sickness. “Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner,” the guidance says.

Employers should be “really flexible” with sick leave, advised Pastula, and folks who are sick and actively coughing and sneezing need to stay out of grocery stores, he added.

Whole Foods, said Mark, is “very clear” that any employee who feels sick—whether it’s with COVID-19 symptoms or not—needs to stay home. And anyone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or otherwise needs to be quarantined will receive up to two weeks of paid time off, according to the Whole Foods’ website.

Colorado-based Leevers Supermarket, Inc., which employs more than 500 people in 18 stores across the Front Range that include Save-A-Lot and Colorado Ranch Market, has enacted similar protocols. Any employees with flu-like symptoms are not allowed to work and are covered by the company’s sick-leave policies, Gabriel Disbrow, chief operating officer at Leevers, said via email. (Disbrow did not provide further details on these policies, but said the company is following “industry and government-related guidance.”)

And Matthew O'Toole, grocery manager at Clark's Market in Aspen, said on Monday, March 23 that employees who are sick at work are sent home “right off the bat.”

Paid sick leave, however, is just one day, he said.

Beyond sending workers home when they’re ill and paying them as they recover, what are Colorado grocers doing to protect the health of their employees and customers while they’re actually on the clock and shopping?

Many stores, including those owned by Kroger, Whole Foods and Leevers, have reduced their hours, which gives employees more time to both restock ransacked shelves and sanitize the premises in accordance with new cleaning protocols. The revised schedule is a “godsend,” said Jessica, an hourly employee at a King Soopers in Fort Collins (a different store than Amy).

New hours at Ideal Market allow only customers 60 and older, as well as employees and family members, to shop for one hour apart from the general public, said Mark. Leevers enacted a similar policy, serving only elderly and high-risk customers for one hour before stores open to the broader community, said Disbrow. Other chains have enacted similar policies across the country.

Leevers also recently hired “constant sanitation crews to clean shopping carts and hard surfaces continually throughout the day at every store,” said Disbrow. “We are also stopping on an hourly basis and sanitizing all check lanes and high-touch areas.” The company provided gloves and added additional hand sanitizing stations in all breakrooms, said Disbrow, and all employees are now required to practice social distancing, he added.

At King Soopers, new protocols include cleaning commonly used areas more often; sanitizing and restocking restrooms more frequently; adding extra hand sanitizer throughout the store; and wiping down shopping carts, baskets, and equipment (among other steps), according to a press statement shared by Trowbridge.

And at Ideal Market? “We have meetings every day about [how employees can protect their health at work],” said Mark. New actions include increased cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing frequently touched surfaces; the closure of the food bars and coffee counter; and the option for cashiers to wear gloves, said Mark. Employees may also wear masks at work if they wish, according to the Whole Foods website.

Pastula wouldn’t comment on whether grocery store employees should wear masks and/or gloves at work, but instead urged employers and employees to follow the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which, as of now, don’t recommend these items for grocery store workers specifically. (There also isn’t yet any CDC or CDPHE guidance specific to grocery store workers.)

“It's possible that if equipment isn't being used appropriately, it might offer a false sense of protection,” Pastula said. If someone wearing gloves, for instance, touched a contaminated surface and then touched their face with the glove, they could still contract the virus, he said.

But despite the seeming risks of working a public-facing job right now, some grocery store employees aren’t worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves.

“I know that this is a very contagious thing and all of that, but I'm not really that concerned,” said Jessica on Thursday, March 19. “I can only do what I can do, and I'm doing it.” She described frequently washing her hands and disinfecting her area of the store.

The mom of five expressed more worry over the thought that she could pass the virus to one of her family members, who she said has a “very compromised immune system.” Jessica resides near elderly people and doesn’t want to pass the virus onto them, either, she added.

But worries aside, Jessica said she is “just taking the opportunity to be as positive as I possibly can, and to be as kind as I possibly can to the community, and to help them as much as I possibly can.”

O’Toole, of Clark’s Market in Aspen, expressed similar sentiments. “It's probably the first time at this job where I really feel like I'm benefiting the community,” he said. “It feels really good and it really inspires me to keep working hard as much as possible, and keep trying to provide as much of a service to my community as possible.”

Thanks to new employee compensation benefits offered by major corporations, many grocery store employees now have another reason to feel good.

Whole Foods recently announced employees now earn double pay for overtime through May 3 (previously, they earned time and a half) as well as a $2 per hour pay raise through the end of the April. “It’s helped a lot for sure,” said Mark, who said he “pretty much” lives paycheck to paycheck.

“When it comes down to it, I can complain about corporate policies all day long, but I do feel like they've been supporting us,” he said.

Both Amy and Jessica said King Soopers employees were recently given a $25 gift card to the store as a “thank you” for working during the pandemic. The amount, Amy admitted, is not a lot per person, “but if you think about it, that's a lot of money to go across the board at a big corporation, so that was kind of nice.” In the March 21 Kroger press release, the company announced it was awarding employees a one-time bonus of $150 for part-time associates and $300 for full-time associates.

Still, the job—and the anxiety it induces—sometimes takes its toll.

“I feel fortunate on one hand to work in the industry that I do because I’m not out of a job,” said Amy. “Yet on the other hand, it feels scary... there are days that I definitely wish that I wasn't an essential worker.” She said she has recently cried on her drive home from work after particularly “heavy” days.

To mitigate stress at work, Mark focuses on helping customers find what they need and takes breaks from the sales floor during his shifts. And at home, having a glass of wine or beer helps, as does watching TV—Mark recently finished “Watchmen” on HBO.

“That was fantastic," he said, "and also let me spend a bunch of time looking at a fictional universe that has crazy problems that let me forget about what’s going on in ours.”

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A grocery store employee wears a mask and gloves as she walks to collect shopping carts in the parking lot of a Denver supermarket on March 18, 2020.

Jenny McCoy
Journalist
Boulder, Colorado