Should retail associates be treated like frontline health responders?

Photo: Getty Images/zoranm
Mar 26, 2020

Minnesota and Vermont last week officially designated grocery clerks as emergency personnel, similar to paramedics and nurses, to give them access to free childcare.

The workers range across food retailing roles, including those working registers, restocking shelves, cleaning stores and those involved in distribution.

Wrote Becky Dernbach for Mother Jones, which first reported on the designations, “As they brave the daily crowds of people rushing to stock up their pantries, and risk infecting themselves through contact with so many customers, their essential role in a functioning society has become clearer than ever.”

A number of retailers have temporary raised hourly pay, handed out special bonuses and/or enhanced sick leave protections as the coronavirus pandemic has led to packed stores and empty shelves.

To encourage social distancing to protect shoppers and employees, many stores are restricting the number of shoppers and have signs reminding them to remain six feet apart. Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons earlier this week indicated they are installing plexiglass barriers near registers to offer protections from sneezes or coughs.

Target on Wednesday said it will have greeters stationed at each checkout lane ensuring shoppers are at least six feet apart. Workers will clean checkout lanes after each transaction. The retailer has temporarily halted product returns and is not accepting reusable plastic bags, both of which could transmit the disease.

Kroger on Tuesday said it is allowing workers to wear protective masks and gloves. A spokesperson told Yahoo Finance that, while Kroger supports health care workers having first access, “We are advocating to government officials at all levels for help securing a priority place in line for all grocery workers — after health care workers — to have access to protective masks and gloves.”

Many workers at “essential” retailers also have to manage stressful shoppers.

One H-E-B worker in Texas told NBC News late last week that stockers “were getting pushed out of the way for toilet paper” and customers were “fighting over beans.” A shopper at a Wegmans location in New Jersey on Sunday was charged with making terrorist threats after coughing on an employee, laughing and claiming he had the coronavirus.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do frontline grocery workers deserve special protections and compensation amid the coronavirus pandemic on par with first responders? What else could grocers or local authorities be doing to support essential retail workers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"As essential service workers, store associates deserve extra pay, physical protective measures, shorter shifts and access to health services, including mental health resources"
"Grocery store employees are just as much if not more at risk then health care workers. At least all health care workers are taking precautions..."
"Frontline grocery associates not only risk exposure to coronavirus daily, but they are privy to firsthand experiences with terrified customers at their worst."

Join the Discussion!

28 Comments on "Should retail associates be treated like frontline health responders?"

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Mark Ryski

YES. Providing continuity to the food supply and access to essential retail is critical. Notwithstanding the challenges frontline medical workers are having in getting PPE, I think frontline retail workers who are in contact with the public should absolutely be provided with some additional protection. Many retailers who remain open are providing additional pay, and that helps, but money won’t protect workers from COVID-19.

Lee Peterson

Yes, definitely. Even Amazon is paying more and cutting to send only essentials. In times like these we really need those people, but the risk is palpable for them. I just wish they’d protect themselves a little better (which could be on the brand) as I’ve seen many grocery store workers without any PPE at all.

Zel Bianco

Yes, as they are essential. They are risking their lives to provide the rest of us with necessities while we stay put. Although we should all avoid the store as much as possible, we cannot rely on deliveries for everything. Speaking of deliveries, those that are doing the deliveries are at great risk, and most if not all are low paid and have no insurance let alone unemployment insurance benefits!

Art Suriano
Sadly, there is always that 5 percent of customers who are rude and disrespectful to store associates. That number today is probably higher because we are dealing with extreme panic with many consumers. They are hoarding products, pushing, shoving, and doing everything possible to make their way to get the item they want. So yes, store associates need every level of protection possible because it is those 5+ percent of customers who are making this worse than it needs to be. What is the need to buy excessive amounts of toilet paper? Things like that don’t make sense. Yet when fear is the driver, people are prone to irrational behavior, and that’s when problems occur because they are not listening or paying attention to the rules, like keeping six feet apart from one another. I feel bad for store associates who are out there trying to do their job and, of course, worrying about themselves getting the virus. These are real people with lives, families, and children, and we should treat them ALL with the… Read more »
Cathy Hotka

This is literally a matter of life and death. If people are to buy food, medicine, and other vital supplies, there have to be frontline employees to sell it to them. We need to protect them in any way we can. And let’s face it — if a customer can’t treat a store associate with dignity and respect, they should be detained by loss prevention and inconvenienced, at the very least.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
2 years 3 months ago

Agreed. While retailers are making modifications such as sneeze shields at the checkstands, etc. it does not completely shield interaction. As long as food retailers are going to be considered essential (and they are) there will need to be associates to help process customers and at the very least, they should be considered on par with other health care responders.

David Weinand

Providing extra compensation is an easy step grocers can take to ensure consistency of service. These folks are enduring stressed out customers that, as you point out, often behave badly and they are putting themselves in harm’s way. Offering full health care services to these people should be a given as well. Finally, ensuring processes are followed is critical right now. For example, Traders Joe’s in my area is only allowing 20 people in the store at a time to ensure proper social distancing – HOWEVER, they aren’t dictating the same rules to the 30-40 people in line outside (they were all standing one to two feet apart) so what’s the point?

George Anderson

Our local Trader Joe’s had the same restriction in-store and people were well-spaced in the line that wrapped around the building and in front of the bank next door.

Paul Conley

Shout out to Trader Joe’s, which here in NYC seems to be doing the best job overall in managing social distancing in its stores and in the lines outside. Everywhere else I’ve visited seems to still be struggling to enforce the rules.

Neil Saunders

Yes they do. They are putting themselves at risk, their stress and work levels are up because of the crisis, and they are critical in keeping us all supplied with essential goods. Such effort and dedication deserve to be rewarded.

Lisa Goller

Yes. Stores now need to be more sterile and clinical to keep associates, consumers and their networks safe. As essential service workers, store associates deserve extra pay, physical protective measures, shorter shifts, and access to health services, including mental health resources. Associates are taking bigger risks; they deserve bigger rewards.

Brandon Rael

Any business that is deemed to be essential during the COVID-19 crisis has store associates who are taking risks to keep the stores stocked and provide for critical customer needs. The pandemic is a very fluid situation that is changing by the day, and corporations should provide the protections and compensation incentives to address how important the frontline grocery store and pharmacy store associates are.

What is concerning is that customers have taken out their frustrations on the store associates when there are stockouts such as paper products. These are unprecedented times, and our grocery industry store associates need to be protected.

Frank Riso

Grocery store employees are just as much if not more at risk then health care workers. At least all health care workers are taking precautions while grocery store staff have for the most part no protection. So yes they need to be both recognized for their work and justly rewarded. Grocers can set new store hours, implement mandatory spacing for customers, provide wipes and cleaners for basket carts and provide workers with both gloves and masks. This would all be good for everyone. Local authorities can also help as needed to control parking lot traffic and to keep the number of shoppers less then 50 or so at a time shopping the store. Three cheers for the grocery industry!

Jeff Sward

Absolutely yes. They deserve every level of protection and support. The plexi screen installed at my local grocer was a quick reminder of just how close customers and cashiers can get. The guy putting out fresh fruit was wearing gloves and a mask, making it infuriating to watch unprotected shoppers handle the fresh fruit like they would have a month ago. (These days, if I touch it I buy it.) Having your office closed or choosing not to go to work is one thing. But if you have to go to work in a high exposure environment, PPE and maybe some battle pay are certainly called for. Along with a lot of thanks and gratitude from us shoppers.

Rich Kizer

Frontline staff are now the “leading edge” people that literally keep things running. I don’t know why anyone would question any protection and safety they would receive.

Ken Morris

I mentioned that these workers should be treated as first responders in an earlier post. They are constantly exposed and some are being traumatized by the risk they face every day for low wages. I don’t know what we would do if they didn’t come to work as this self isolation is hard enough on all of us. I believe we should give them bonus hazardous duty pay instead of bailing out people like Boeing and the cruise lines who don’t deserve it.

Harley Feldman

Yes, they do. They interact with people all day long who are potential virus carriers. I just returned from Costco who is working hard to keep shoppers six feet apart. All of those shoppers go through the checkout lines facing the cashiers who are handling the shoppers at a steady pace. Some grocers are giving bonuses to employees which is a nice touch for those working hard and facing the public.

Bethany Allee

In addition to putting their own lives at risk, they are exposing their family to additional risks. Without a doubt, grocery workers deserve special protections and compensation at this time. At this point, protective gear and materials to do their job as safely as possible should be a given. Minnesota and Vermont are leading the curve in providing free childcare – every state should do this. This could also help streamline essential childcare workers, who are being overlooked. Food, transportation, and supply dispensations are additional options to help support all of the folks on the front line.

Ralph Jacobson

In these crazy times, grocery store staff needs the relentless support of their leaders. Intensifying the traditional safety and sanitation procedures to not only physically protect the workers, but also give confidence to shoppers that they are also protected is paramount right now. I do see certain efforts becoming permanent practice, such as sneeze guards at the POS, etc.

Brent Biddulph

YES. Right now, Food, Drug, Mass (FDM) frontline workers are mostly unprotected – these workers are the (perhaps only) firewall to complete community panic. Interacting with and supporting exponentially higher numbers of un-screened people, and in complete darkness.

Jasmine Glasheen

Absolutely. Frontline grocery associates not only risk exposure to coronavirus daily, but they are privy to firsthand experiences with terrified customers at their worst.

Retail violence is a growing problem and one of the things we rarely talk about is how to incentivize quality employees to keep showing up in a world gone mad.

With all of the destruction this pandemic is causing, I hope that the one positive we can all take away from this is a renewed awareness that the value of the individual frontline worker cannot be overestimated. They’re the ones keeping our society churning. I hope that when the world recovers from this crisis (and it will) that large corporations will continue to adequately compensate and incentivize their VIPs on the ground floor.

Mel Kleiman

Yes, front line employees in many occupation deserve special protection and compensation. But they are not the same as first responders. Let’s not diminish what first responders and health care workers do by putting everyone in the same class as they are.

James Tenser

Absolutely yes. Stockers and checkers are essential personnel. Interacting with large numbers of shoppers poses a degree of risk at this time which must be recognized and mitigated to the extent possible.

A little extra pay helps send a tangible message from employers. Even more important are prompt and practical safety measures, support (like childcare and shift flexibility), and a culture of respect.

I emphasize respect, because store associates are being placed under considerable stress. Care for their emotional and physical well-being matters greatly. 98% of customers are indeed “always right” but the few that exhibit anti-social behavior endanger all the rest of us and should be dis-invited.

Craig Sundstrom

They’re in a middle territory: clearly more exposure than someone sitting at home, clearly less than a doctor/nurse in an ER.

I’m certainly not going to object to reasonable efforts to reduce risk, but “reasonable” is the key — an elusive concept here. Trying to maintain OR cleanliness standards may be a laudable goal, but if it causes a breakdown in store operations, it’s likely to be counterproductive: masks (IF available)?, sure; shields? OK. Deep cleaning after every customer? Uhmm….

Mark Ryski

True Craig. As we discussed on a previous post, creating hygiene poilicies and providing frontline staff with extra protection is one thing; having a supply of sanitizer, masks, etc. is a different story. Retailers need to and are getting creative, for example, several major food chains in Canada are rolling out plexiglass barriers for cashiers.

John Karolefski

Absolutely. Some chains have increased pay for these retail associates who, thank goodness, continue to staff grocery stores. Plexiglass between cashiers and customers is a good idea. I would recommend plexiglass also at the customer service desk and the pharmacy counter. Having associates who work the produce department wear latex gloves and maybe masks may seem extreme, but would send a safety signal to shoppers.

Kenneth Leung

Yes, it is impossible to sterilize grocery stores like you would a hospital, but all practical means need to be considered and the workers need to be protected and compensated for risking themselves to keep the infrastructure going. Gloves, disinfectant, masks etc. are a necessity since it is impossible to stay away from customers and still do the job.