Grocery workers continue to be at a high risk from COVID-19

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Nov 04, 2020
Matthew Stern

Grocery shopping has settled into a rhythm since the tumultuous early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic. A newly released study shows, however, that a significant risk remains for employees, which could have implications for grocers and shoppers as the pandemic’s latest wave wears on.

More than 20 percent of 104 grocery store workers at a Boston grocer tested positive for the novel coronavirus in May, despite three quarters being asymptomatic, according to a study which was published on Thursday in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, CNN reported. The level of spread among employees was significantly greater than that in the communities surrounding the store, and customer-facing employees were five times more likely to test positive than employees in other types of roles.

In terms of measures to prevent the spread of the virus, 91 percent of store staff reported wearing masks at all times during work and 77 percent said they wore masks outside of work, but only 66 percent were able to socially distance while on the job.

A series of grim headlines about the deaths of retail employees from COVID-19 early in the pandemic brought national attention to the fact that working in grocery stores could put employees in harm’s way.

Grocery workers were briefly hailed as heroes in the media, and many large retailers instituted “hero bonuses” to grocery associates whose jobs required that they interact with the public. By mid-May, though, retailers like Kroger were publicly discussing rolling back their bonuses. (At Kroger, the hero pay was an extra $2 per hour.)

By mid-October most major retailers had ended their hero bonus programs, according to a CNN article. Lowe’s and Target, however, have instituted new financial bonus programs since then.

In the U.S., COVID-19 cases are now at a record high and hospitalizations have climbed beyond where they were in mid-August, according to NBC News.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that the novel coronavirus is spread primarily through close interaction between people, and that the longer and closer the interaction the greater the chance of transmission. The CDC recommends minimizing in-store grocery shopping during the pandemic.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do grocers need to reassess and possibly increase coronavirus protections for staff and customers as the latest wave of the pandemic continues, and if so what further actions can they make? How can customers and staff be reassured about the safety of grocery shopping in light of these numbers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I think grocers need to evaluate what they can modify to help their employees minimize the risk of COVID-19 and continue the bonus pay as long as there is a known risk."
"From a moral and morale perspective, it seems fair staff should be compensated for their continued “heroic” front line efforts."
"Going forward the burden of responsibility may fall on the grocery store employees, but there is shared accountability for customers to do the right things..."

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19 Comments on "Grocery workers continue to be at a high risk from COVID-19"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The pandemic has become a way of life. And while COVID-19 fatigue wears everyone down, front line workers still show up and do their work. The pandemic is a runaway train and it will go where it goes. Other than the countless discussions we already had about the things retailers should do to keep their shoppers and employees safe, I’m not sure there’s more to say or do.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

Unfortunately, I think Mark is right. Workers rights aren’t a priority and they’re likely not going to be a priority anytime soon. Retailers are smart to focus their energy and investments on customer experience in our new way of life.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The study seems to have been based on one store and, while interesting and important, it would be good to see more data points to understand the risks and nature of the spread. That said, it seems logical that staff in busy stores are at more risk than the average person. As such, it is imperative that retailers double down on safety measures and ensure that all customers comply with mask wearing and social distancing. Free regular testing is also a good idea.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

I couldn’t agree more. More testing and better monitoring of infection rates are the only way we’re going to get a handle on this for frontline workers.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

I agree that 100 grocery workers in one store in May is not a good sample size. How widespread was the use of masks, social distancing and plexiglass in the store at that time? Were customers expected to wear masks, even if associates were required to do so? I know at my neighborhood Kroger store (where I shopped last week) there were similar outbreaks early in the pandemic — and at some point I switched from curbside pickup to in-store shopping when the incidence got better. (Writing this from Wisconsin, so maybe I should revert to curbside.)

At this point, there isn’t much more that grocers can do — assuming they require masks and social distancing — provided that their behind-the-scenes workers are adequately protected.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

This pandemic has become the norm. I still see employees wearing masks and cleaning constantly.
Customers still socially distance and wear masks as well. I would think it would be too easy to slack off after so much time, but as long as there is a leader in the store that is constantly keeping track and reminding employees to keep up the standards, supermarkets are in a great position to continue to be the models of the pandemic.

Joan Treistman
BrainTrust

Grocery retailers have to continuously assess their employee’s safety during the pandemic (and always). It’s unacceptable to say here’s a bonus for risking your life and at the same time not implement precautions to lower that risk.

The study talks about the percentage of workers who test positive. The study that is most relevant, in my opinion, would identify what about the workplace induces that percentage. Then management with employee input can determine how best to mitigate the risk.

Yes, the pandemic isn’t going away — yet. In our private lives we’re trying to modify our behavior to avoid being infected. And as time has gone by, we’ve learned that there are some things we don’t have to worry about as much, e.g., groceries. I think grocers need to evaluate what they can modify to help their employees minimize the risk of COVID-19 and continue the bonus pay as long as there is a known risk.

Brett Busconi
Guest

Yes. Grocers need to continually reassess and look to increase protections for staff and customers. Distance seems to be the key area where grocers are failing — and the larger issue is that a large percentage of in-store shoppers are not really able to be controlled. Unfortunately, I think the best method for controlling this is to tightly enforce a limit on the number of people allowed to be shopping in-store — and that needs to include the number of in-store pickers.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Grocers definitely need to reassess their protections. People wear masks but many have them below their noses or don’t have a proper fit. Grocers must mandate masks and understand what to do when someone refuses, they also need to enforce the correct wearing of masks with the nose covered. Gloves should also be used by staff with cash-only lines to limit touches, and grocers should audit their POS use cases to eliminate touches where possible.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

The entire grocery industry has stepped up and adapted their operating models to the new normal, as well as heeded the guidance from the CDC to keep their employees and valued customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trust and transparency around safety measures, including social distancing, mask-wearing, increased sanitation, and clearing procedures have been in place since the start of the pandemic.

While there may be some exceptions to the rule, if customers do not feel safe and secure at specific grocery stores, they simply will take their business elsewhere. Going forward the burden of responsibility may fall on the grocery store employees, but there is shared accountability for customers to do the right things, follow the rules, and understand that we will get through this crisis together responsibly.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

Diligence, vigilance, and persistence will be the key to keeping grocery workers as safe as possible. However, no matter what we do, it’s a high-risk situation: being inside for extended periods with limited social distancing is among the highest-risk scenarios for transmission of COVID-19. These people deserve hero bonus programs, expanded medical coverage, and more PTO to help recover and rest, at a minimum. And they deserve our respect when inside their stores: wear a mask, stay six feet apart whenever possible, minimize trips, and minimize “browsing” time while inside their stores.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

The only difference between March and now is that there is much more COVID-19 now. Grocers need to redouble efforts, and customers should avoid peak shopping times when social distancing isn’t possible.

storewanderer
Guest
25 days 22 hours ago

COVID cases as reported are skyrocketing, yet all I see are stores becoming more lax. I think when the article came out months ago as COVID was declining, saying there was limited chance of COVID from surface contact, a lot of stores got more lax on their cleaning, allowing reusable bags again, eliminating the one way aisles, etc. was a turning point and now with the reported cases skyrocketing, the stores need to re-consider these restrictions they have lifted.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Regardless of whether you accept the findings in this study or not, the fact is COVID-19 is spreading worse now than it was in March when grocers instituted their precautions. On paper, it doesn’t appear there is anything left for grocers to do other than remain vigilant about enforcing the precautions they instituted. Store managers may need to remind associates to properly wear their masks and remind them about distancing. No, the environment for these workers has not suddenly become less risky, but the key is not to become complacent about precautions. The only remaining factor is how accessible testing is for these employees. This remains an issue across the country, not just for grocers. What we have seen is that the risk may be less for customers than previously thought, but this is also a function of how customers act while inside the store. Customers can at least manage what time they visit the store and how long they stay inside, while store workers do not have that luxury.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Target is smart to continue to validate their appreciation of their staff via bonuses. Conversely, it is disheartening to the human spirit of staff to be called a “hero” for working the front line, and then only a few months later they are no longer a “hero” as their bonuses are canceled. I guess glowing “at the moment” corporate press releases matter more to corporations than the people who work for them, who risk their own health, day in and day out. How does it feel to be demoted from hero status to business as usual, as the virus rages on? Anecdotally, it appears that some front line grocery workers are fatigued by the day in and day out front line work. Safety requires new job responsibilities on behalf of the staff, especially in grocery stores. From a moral and morale perspective, it seems fair staff should be compensated for their continued “heroic” front line efforts.

storewanderer
Guest
25 days 22 hours ago
Grocers are not increasing protection — they seem to be keeping it the same at best. One positive thing is grocers have continued to increase their hours of operation. This gives you, the customer, a good option if you do not want to risk being near a bunch of people shopping: go shop early in the morning or late at night when the store is not busy. One of the things I notice is employees working together in close proximity in grocery stores, or huddled on groups talking to each other (not about work). Masks often worn below the nose are another thing I keep seeing. I continue to promote the idea that stores need to close off sections when an employee is stocking to keep the employee safe from customers huddling around close to the employee, but no stores do that (other than Costco with forklifts on aisles). Anyway I think grocery stores are slowly moving back to pre-COVID rules. Reusable bags are being allowed again, but hardly anyone is using them, so not… Read more »
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Most chains have implemented safety protocols like mask policies, plexiglass shields, hand sanitizer stations, gloves and distancing markers to keep social distance. But operating with and enforcing them is a challenge and extra burden for associates.

Early on retailers were challenged by rude hoarders and demand surges. Now non-mask wearers have become so problematic that the NRF feels it necessary to provide conflict resolution recommendations for its members.

Safety for all is the top priority. The trick is to balance associates’ need for compensation and esteem with customers’ requirement for service.

Carol Leaman
Guest
24 days 1 hour ago

We’re all fatigued, and none more so than the grocery associate. This virus and what we know about it is still changing every week, and with turnover in the industry as high as it’s ever been, staying vigilant with consistent, constant training and information about what to do and why, just can’t stop or be relaxed.

Jack Pansegrau
Guest

In my opinion, only one commenter made the most important observation — stores need to max their safety protocols AND limit customers in the store at any one time, as well as proximity of employees to each other. And of course training and management oversight of both employees and customers. There can’t be any slacking or excuses for weariness.

I forecast that more than even deaths, that many will find that Long Covid symptoms will prove in time to be a big, as of yet uncounted concern. I have several close friends who have serious ongoing symptoms and yet they were never hospitalized nor had any issues pre-Covid. So this is not “flu” and not unlike SARS, the longer term and lingering disease will be found to be quite serious. So I say PROTECT WORKERS and CUSTOMERS and let profits come as they will. Do the right thing.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"I think grocers need to evaluate what they can modify to help their employees minimize the risk of COVID-19 and continue the bonus pay as long as there is a known risk."
"From a moral and morale perspective, it seems fair staff should be compensated for their continued “heroic” front line efforts."
"Going forward the burden of responsibility may fall on the grocery store employees, but there is shared accountability for customers to do the right things..."

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