What new worker challenges does the Omicron variant present?
While employers have made great strides in offering worker protections against the dangers of COVID since March of 2020, some grocery employees say the rapid spread of the Omicron strain is shaping up to be the same kind of mess they’ve seen before.
Grocer staff in California told the Los Angeles Times that the emergence of the Omicron variant has not prompted employers to provide better or more protections for store workers. Staff shared anecdotes of abusive customers, the lack of new specific guidance for addressing the new variant and the failure of stores to provide updated instructions on how to handle infected fellow associates.
At the pandemic’s beginning, frontline retail workers found themselves at high risk of infection and soon hailed as heroes. Employers introduced “hero bonuses” and hazard pay, although many of the perks ended earlier this year as vaccination rates rose.
The highly-contagious Omicron variant emerged in late-November as countries were still wrangling with the Delta variant. While researchers are now reporting that Omicron causes milder illness than previous variants, concerns persist that the high level of contagion will still result in overwhelmed hospitals and an uptick in deaths.
In mid-December, New York state again began mandating masks in all indoor facilities where proof of vaccination isn’t required and California also re-imposed its mask mandate.
Around the same time, Apple became the first major retailer to again require customers to wear masks in all U.S. stores. On Monday, Apple closed all 12 of its New York City stores as the city reported that two percent of all Manhattan residents were infected in the last week, only to reopen the locations to “limited” walk-ins following a barrage of online complaints. Apple, Nike and Google are among major firms in recent weeks that have pushed back deadlines for when employees would return to the office.
At the store level, traffic reportedly declined in the last weeks of holiday selling due to Omicron-driven infection fears.
High caseload levels of the new variant are also reportedly putting further pressure on retail’s lean staffing. One positive development on Monday was the CDC’s decision to recommend a reduction in the number of days people should isolate after being infected to five days from 10.
- ‘An untenable work environment’: Grocery workers brace for Omicron surge – Los Angeles Times
- Omicron Infections Seem to be Milder, Three Research Teams Report – The New York Times
- Flight disruptions continue with thousands more cancellations as Omicron thins airline crews – The New York Times
- Despite supply issues and omicron, holiday sales rise 8.5% – Associated Press
- Should retailers do more to protect frontline workers? – RetailWire
- Apple will require masks for customers at all U.S. stores because of rising Covid cases – CNBC
- Apple Closes NYC Locations, Allows Online Pick-Ups – Gothamist
- Apple reopens NYC stores to ‘limited’ in-person shoppers after closure backlash – New York Post
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What unique challenges does the fast-spreading but apparently milder Omicron variant of the coronavirus present to grocers and other retailers? What lessons from past waves would be useful in managing protections for and relations with store associates?