This is the reality facing Eric Nelson, who can’t work from home, despite the virus raging around him and a heart condition that may put him at greater risk of experiencing severe symptoms if he catches the virus.
The 49-year-old Kroger worker in Cincinnati needs the $16 an hour he makes at the store selecting customers’ online grocery orders for pickup and delivery to pay rent and support his two children. He’s searched for jobs at call centers that would allow him to work remotely during the pandemic, but has come up empty handed.
Nelson comes in close contact with thousands of people a week at the supermarket. Despite Kroger’s policy requiring customers to wear masks, he said some shoppers walk around without a mask or wear them below their noses or mouths, reducing their efficacy. Nelson often works weekends, which are the busiest times on the job when customers are off work and buying food for the week.
“There’s so many people in the store,” said the 11-year Kroger veteran and United Food and Commercial Workers union member. “You just don’t know who has what or who has come across what. You just don’t know.”
Sometimes his store requires him to work mandatory overtime when extra orders need to be filled, increasing his exposure to customers. Other times co-workers show up sick, he said, because they can’t afford to miss work. (A Kroger spokesperson said in an email that the company offers paid sick leave to workers. The company said it also offers pay for up to two weeks for workers diagnosed with Covid-19; workers placed under mandatory quarantine by a medical provider; and workers practicing self-isolation for Covid-19 symptoms.)
“I’m really, really concerned,” he said. “If I catch the virus, it’s going to put me down for a little while, if not kill me.”
Nelson is frustrated he and his Kroger co-workers have been left out of initial vaccine priority groups. He worries that the virus would spread like wildfire at the store if he or a co-worker were to get it, possibly jeopardizing the community’s access to food.
“You got to think about the grocery [workers] as well,” Nelson said. “You don’t want them to be sick while they’re stocking shelves. That would spread fast.”
The Kroger spokesperson said that the company has invested more than $1.5 billion in safety measures in stores and additional pay for workers during the pandemic.
“Kroger continues to advocate to federal, state and elected officials to prioritize frontline grocery workers to receive the vaccine,” the spokesperson added.
High exposure jobs
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents more than 1.3 million workers in the grocery and food industries, says at least 137 grocery workers have died from Covid-19 and more than 30,100 have been infected or exposed to the virus.
Grocery workers are in “high exposure, high contact jobs and if they’re infected they may become super-spreaders,” said Justin Yang, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University’s School of Medicine.
But despite the risks, in 37 states, grocery workers are not eligible to get vaccinated, according to the union.
States followed suit, said Jennifer Tolbert, a health policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Many states have shifted away from a focus on frontline essential workers and more toward targeting older adults,” she said. “By prioritizing older adults over frontline essential workers, it does end up bumping people who are at greater risk of exposure at their jobs further down the line.”
“These decisions in no way change the fact that grocery workers and other frontline workers are at greater risk of exposure to Covid-19,” she said. As more vaccine becomes available, she predicts states will expand eligibility to include grocery workers.
Both unions and the trade group representing grocery stores say workers should be moved up the vaccine line now.
Grocery workers “should be prioritized for the [Covid] vaccine” as the CDC first recommended, Leslie Sarsin, CEO of FMI, the Food Industry Association, said in an email. “To do otherwise ignores the critical role these individuals play in keeping the country fed.”
‘Fearful every day’
Sarah Demerrit, 58, who works overnight shifts at a Safeway in Lake Oswego, Oregon, cleaning down the store, said that even though she is not interacting with customers, she worries that one of her co-workers may infect her.
“I don’t feel safe at all,” she said. Her co-workers are “becoming very complacent” and not always maintaining social distancing when they are in the store, she said. “People [are] just used to it.” (Christine Wilcox, a spokesperson for Albertsons, which owns Safeway, says safety is its top priority and it has “very clear social distancing reminders” in place at stores, in addition to PPE, cleaning protocols, Covid-19 testing and other measures to protect workers and customers.)
She said was laid off from a restaurant in the spring and is the primary breadwinner for three children and her husband, a freelancer who has had trouble finding work in the pandemic. She makes $13.80 an hour, she said, and she has no choice but to keep working in the store. She has a 13-year-old with asthma and worries that she will contract the virus at work and pass it onto her son.
“I am fearful every day I go into work,” she said. “I go into my job ready. But sometimes it makes it really hard with the customers.”