What new worker challenges does the Omicron variant present?

Photo: RetailWire
Dec 29, 2021

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.

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?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

15 Comments on "What new worker challenges does the Omicron variant present?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Neil Saunders

Even if milder, the virus is still something of a threat and retailers need to take reasonable actions to mitigate the spread. However one of the biggest issues seems to be with the required isolation times for those who test positive. As so many people are getting Omicron all at once it is causing labor shortages across all sectors of the economy. The reduction in isolation days will help with this, but it will continue to cause a headache for retailers into the new year.

Mark Ryski

The health and safety of employees and customers must remain the top priority. Omicron presents new challenges, but most retailers now have protocols for operating safely and should be able to continue to manage the situation. The most important thing everyone can do is get vaccinated and boosted.

Paula Rosenblum

Well, we are in an interesting dilemma here. Apparently the CDC has lowered its estimate of Omicron cases, down to 25/75 of new cases vs. 75/25. Florida, of course, is the exception with 75/25 staying in place.

These are just dangerous times. It’s not clear that the vaccine does much for Omicron.

I suppose what I would do is get a boatload of tests and test everyone every two to three days. It only takes five minutes. It’s the only real way to know.

Dick Seesel

The trick is finding those rapid tests. Maybe corporate customers are having better luck than individuals shopping at Walgreens or on Amazon, but the lack of test capacity is undermining the new CDC guidelines almost as soon as they come out.

Paula Rosenblum

Agreed. I assumed B2B would be easier.

Gene Detroyer
I hope we have learned something by now! For the retailer, the biggest problem will be staff. This variant is very contagious, even though less virulent than the last. While many will be infected, they will be back to work sooner. I should qualify anything I write as I live in NYC. The population is extraordinarily compliant. Even before Omicron, my zip code had over 99 percent of the residents vaccinated. One is not required to wear masks walking the street, but eight of 10 people do. I have seen no pushback by shoppers when people are reminded to wear masks when they walk into the stores, only quickly pulling them up and apologizing that they forgot. Anyone I talked to about their holiday gatherings told me that all the guests got tested before any family and friends joined. Here in NYC, they take COVID-19 more seriously than they did with wave one, two and three. There my be a wave four, five or six, but now we know the drill and will be more… Read more »
Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Merchant Director
1 year 5 months ago

It does not change current practices – social distancing, masked employees, clean facilities, etc. I have not seen many retailers stray from these practices.

Jeff Sward

The so-called “milder illness” that has been reported could actually magnify the problem. People could hear that and relax their current vigilance and others could interpret it as further proof they don’t need to be vaccinated. The hospitalization and death rates may be lower with Omicron, but small percentages of a large and growing number of cases will still overwhelm the whole healthcare system. Looks like we will be deep into 2022 before any relaxing of our vigilance will be possible. In the meantime we all need tons of patience and empathy and respect for one another.

Rich Kizer

First of all it is still a virus, and that scares everyone. As we learn more about the strength and danger of this virus, attitudes and actions are bound to change. We have learned lessons about the way we take care of store staff and ease the tensions of customers by presenting how safety conscious we are and what actions we have in place. As the severity of this virus is examined, things will change again — let’s hope for the best with a “fear free” market.

Dick Seesel

Here in Wisconsin, where Delta continues to be a big problem alongside the surge in Omicron cases, there is a surprising lack of concern about mask-wearing as an obvious protective measure. You can walk into a Kroger store or a local c-store like Kwik Trip and see both customers and associates without masks even in the more heavily vaccinated Milwaukee area.

Local governments here and elsewhere have thrown up their hands and given up on mask mandates. (Either the issue is too politically charged, or there is collective “Covid fatigue.”) But responsible retailers facing worker shortages have a right (and an obligation) to reinstate the same kinds of mask requirements that they imposed at the start of the pandemic.

Georganne Bender

I have visited many businesses recently in mask-mandated Chicagoland and have not found them to be doing much other than requiring people to be masked. Social distancing and plexiglass aren’t in use as much as they could be.

We should be more diligent but we’re tired; the frontline is exhausted. Omicron is sneaky; people who feel perfectly well can be infected and not realize they are spreading it. It’s never going to get better until we all take the pandemic seriously. I applaud Apple for doing the hard work to keep people safe.

Peter Charness

More stress, and clearly more opportunity for exposure. Retailers could be supplying their teams with higher quality N95 masks that are now available, and in those municipalities with a mask mandate throw out those smug shoppers who think they can walk around a store maskless needlessly exposing store staff to both the virus and excessive selfishness. Just saying…

Shep Hyken

The biggest challenge is fear. We wonder if the new variant is going to be worse than the last, cause more death and destruction, etc. We wonder if our employees will be able to work, customers will continue to buy, and more. Fear is paralyzing. We’ve now experienced the big wave of COVID-19 and then two variants. This may not be enough history for people to understand how to live and work in a world with COVID-19 variants. We’ve been able to do that with our annual flu season, which some say is derivative of the Spanish Flu of over 100 years ago. Hopefully it’s a matter of time — a very short amount of time — before we learn how to cope and deal with variants.

Craig Sundstrom

Less dangerous (individually) but more contagious seems to be the prevailing viewpoint, so I guess my question is, at what point — and if not with this variant perhaps with some later one — do we say it’s enough like long existing flu variants (or even “the common cold”) that no special measures need to be taken?

Anil Patel

People have become tired of adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. During the first and second waves, people believed that they will be free to live the way they want in a matter of days. People are less willing to accept COVID-19 guidelines this time around.

In my opinion, retailers can have more control over social distancing between employees and customers. Buy Online, Pick Up In Store, and Curbside Pick Up have shown to be highly efficient in ensuring a positive customer experience and safety. Early adopters of these strategies, such as Walmart and Target, have achieved excellent results. It is high time for retailers to embrace omnichannel strategies since there is no other way to compete in today’s highly competitive retail environment.


Take Our Instant Poll

In your retail travels in recent weeks, what grade would you give to retailers for their handling of Omicron surge?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...