.On the Frontlines of the Pandemic: Grocery Workers

It’s been more than three weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak prompted the first waves of panic buying. Shoppers around the country began crowding into the nearest grocery stores. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves, medical masks and food all flew off the shelves. 

With non-essential businesses in states like California shuttered through at least April 7, many Americans are working from home, although not everyone has that luxury. Lots of Americans are suddenly out of work. Doctors and nurses, meanwhile, are hustling through their jobs and caring for patients at the risk of infecting themselves. But the frontline of the epidemic has other foot soldiers, as well—like grocery store employees, who had long been considered little more than “unskilled” workers. These days, their jobs entail busily helping their neighbors get the food and supplies they need in order to keep moving forward and spend as little time as possible outside their homes.

Customers have been quick to express their gratitude.

“It’s funny to be thanked for something that just a few weeks ago would have been a normal day for me,” explains Taylor Posey, a relative newcomer to the grocery business, who joined Shopper’s Corner in Santa Cruz as a wine department clerk five months ago. “But it gives me a sense of pride knowing we are here for the community.” 

Like other stores, the independently owned 82-year-old market got hit hard early, as customers started stocking up on frozen foods, toilet paper and alcohol. Posey says Shopper’s Corner employees are working “super hard under extreme hours” to keep shelves stocked. Over the past couple weeks, the rush has subsided, and it’s mostly been business as usual—other than the sight of employees using sanitation gloves and some gradual changes in consumer habits. Some consumers have been quicker to catch on than others.

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“I feel like a lot of the younger people get it,” he says. “They get in and get out, but a lot of the older customers—the ones who are at the most risk—are taking their chances, even being out.” 


The sudden disruptions have made for changes in some worker benefits.

On Tuesday, March 24, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 5—which serves 30,000 workers, primarily in the grocery industry, from King City to Eureka—announced an agreement with Safeway chain stores to protect employees and customers in the time of COVID-19. New provisions include more flexible hours for child care, up to two weeks’ paid time off in case of infection, extra help, the priority of permanent employees over temporary ones, a $2 per hour pay increase for a period of at least two weeks, and “best practice” procedures—like gloves, sanitizer and sneeze guards—in the stores. 

“We’re showing through this process that when workers have a voice, we’re able to guarantee their health and safety not just by the company saying in a promise, but through a contract,” says local UFCW Director of Strategic Campaigns Jim Araby. 

He says that while the provisions for Safeway workers are temporary, the union hopes to make them permanent and expand them to UFCW members around the country. Araby says the crisis has given new value to what it means to be a grocery worker—an essential employee, in the eyes of the government. 

“We have to realize they’ve never changed their job or the importance of what they do—we’re just now realizing the value,” he says. 

Many other big chain grocery stores have been less generous. The CEO of Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market raised eyebrows when he sent a company-wide email suggesting that workers donate their paid time off to those who might be sick.


Non-unionized stores like Staff of Life Market have been implementing changes as well, for the safety of both their employees and their customers. 

Prior to the outbreak, the market already had sanitation wipes at the entrance for customers to use on their hands and carts. In the past few weeks, they have beefed up their effort with sanitizer at registers, mandatory keyboard wipe downs every 30 minutes and janitorial wipe downs of the store during business hours. 

Staff of Life also now has plexiglass sneeze guards, and it has partnered with Community Printers to pilot new floor graphics designed to keep customers at least six feet apart from one another while waiting in line. The store’s bulk food section is roped off and only accessible by gloved employees. The market has cut back on the hours for its café and eliminated its return policy. It’s made changes to its hot food bar and baked goods section. When the store gets busy, employees queue up in a line outside, limiting the flow of customers in the store. Additionally, Staff of Life has limited its public weekday hours to 9am-8pm, in order to make more time to clean and stock. It’s also now holding senior-only hours before 9am—as are other stores like Safeway, Whole Foods, New Leaf Community Markets, and, as of this past week, Shopper’s Corner. (Shopper’s is also introducing sneeze guards and a no-returns policy.)

“When we do have those customers who are having a hard time with it; we realize we are here to listen, but we’re also not therapists or social workers,” says Staff of Life Specialty Buyer Cesar Olivares, a 20-year grocery store veteran. Most customers, he adds, have been thankful and understanding. 

He adds that he and his coworkers haven’t taken the situation lightly.

“We don’t get the option to be insecure during this moment,” says Olivares, who’s been working double-shifts at the store lately, “so customers need to come in knowing we go to work everyday exposing ourselves to potential danger, because we love what we do.” 

Olivares has happily been raking in overtime hours, and he adds that he and his colleagues also recently took home a pretty good-sized bonus. The store’s also been providing deli meals to employees on their shifts.

Perks can provide valuable support to employees like Sara King. When she’s not helping buy the store’s supplies of cheese beer and wine, King works part time at the Catalyst nightclub, which shut its doors on March 14 due to health concerns, mere days before the county’s shelter-in-place order. “I’m simultaneously one of the first people to lose their job and one of the last to still have one,” explains King. 

King, whose name tag dubs her the “Queso Queen and Beer Babe,” says the most important message for the public is that there’s enough food for all shoppers. 

And when customers buy way more than they need, that makes life more challenging for everyone.

“People need to know that when they go out for food it will be here for them, and there is no need to panic,” she says. “The calmer we are, the easier it will be for all of us.” 

For continuing in-depth coverage of the new coronavirus and its effects locally, visit goodtimes.sc/category/santa-cruz-news/coronavirus.

To learn about action you can take now, whether you’re seeking assistance or want to find ways of supporting the community, visit goodtimes.sc/santa-cruz-coronavirus-resources.


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