May 25, 2020
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Grocery store workers are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They don’t have much choice.

Troy Bennett | BDN
Troy Bennett | BDN
A woman walks into the Hannaford on Forest Avenue in Portland on Friday. As COVID-19 spreads through Maine, some grocery store associates at large chains like Hannaford and Whole Foods have expressed concern that safeguards and sick leave policies aren't enough to keep people safe.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

PORTLAND, Maine — Every morning this week, there’s been a line of at least 20 customers waiting at many of the state’s 182 Hannaford stores for the doors to open. They’re eager to rush in and grab essentials before the shelves run bare.

“The first thing people do is go to the toilet paper aisle and scoop up anything they can find,” said a 20-something Hannaford associate who works in the meat department at a southern Maine store. “Then it’s the essentials — butter, milk, eggs, meat — all are completely gone by mid-morning.”

As the spread of the novel coronavirus shutters most restaurant dining rooms and confines Mainers to their homes, grocers and supermarkets are experiencing unprecedented demand. The rush is good for business, and the availability of food and commodities is crucial for communities.

But some grocery store workers say they’re on the frontlines of this pandemic, whether they like it or not. They say there aren’t enough safeguards in place — such as paid sick time, access to child care or hazard pay — to keep themselves and their communities safe.

Yet many continue to work out of necessity.

Troy Bennett | BDN
Troy Bennett | BDN
A Whole Foods associate sanitizes a shopping cart in Portland. As with other large grocery chains, Whole Foods is only granting paid sick time to employees who have received positive tests for the coronavirus, alarming workers who note the scarce availability of tests statewide.

“Everyone is very tired,” said the meat department worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job during a pandemic. “They’re very worried that they’re at risk of getting sick, and even more worried about the very real possibility of having to miss work and how the paid time off is going to work.”

Hannaford employees can use regular sick time, which is accrued quarterly and doesn’t carry over at the end of the year, an employee said. It’s a benefit that isn’t very useful in a pandemic, the employee said.

Additional paid sick time is available to employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or been quarantined by their primary care doctor, or have been sent home by management, a spokesperson from Hannaford said.

But before someone can test positive for COVID-19, they have to get their hands on a test. Right now, those are severely limited in Maine.

“We’ve had customers coming in coughing all over the place,” said a cashier at another Hannaford store in western Maine, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I have many elderly co-workers who are in danger, but also many of my co-workers are college students, [who] need paid time off but don’t qualify because they’re not full-time [workers].”

Most food markets have beefed up sanitization policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But Hannaford has not made gloves or masks available to employees, despite requests, according to an associate of the company, which was bought by the Belgian company Delhaize in 2016.

This week, Hannaford CEO Mike Vail circulated a letter to employees in supermarket break rooms that said the company is “committed to working with you on steps you can take to keep you and those around you healthy.”

In a prepared statement sent to the BDN, a Hannaford spokesperson said that attention to hygiene in the supermarket was paramount.

Nick Schroeder | BDN
Nick Schroeder | BDN
A woman begins shopping at Hannaford at precisely 7 a.m. Moments earlier, an acquaintance in the parking lot apologized to her, telling her that the toilet paper he had just bought was the last roll.

“We have high standards for our stores and exhaustive and thorough food safety practices,” a company spokesperson said. “We are continuing with rigorous cleaning procedures throughout our store — from offering sanitizing wipes or cleaner at our entryways, to keeping our bathrooms well-maintained, to regularly sanitizing PIN pads, grocery conveyor belts and other high-touch points throughout the store. Our associates are following strict hygiene techniques that are most effective at combating viruses — and we are asking associates who are feeling unwell to stay home.”

Whole Foods Market Inc. has implemented a similar store policy through the end of March.

According to an associate at the Whole Foods in Portland, employees aren’t being penalized if they call out sick and miss work. But many continue to work even with mild symptoms and share homes with people who are feeling sick.

“Everyone I know [who works] there is living paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t afford not to work,” said the Whole Foods employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Many of my co-workers are continuing to work and have told me directly that they continue to work regardless.”

There is no easy solution, workers say. While many state businesses have shuttered under state mandates against large gatherings, grocery stores and supermarkets are exempt, and the importance of maintaining the public’s access to food and supplies during this time is crucial.

But from what health officials know about the transmission of COVID-19, large grocery stores, where shoppers and workers are in close proximity to one another, may be more vulnerable than we realize.

While Gov. Janet Mills has urged businesses to let employees work from home during this pandemic, grocery workers don’t have that luxury. Many supermarkets are even on hiring sprees.

The Whole Foods store in Portland has posted a statement next to the employee punch-in clock announcing that the supermarket chain planned to hire 100,000 new full- and part-time workers across the U.S. to meet consumer demand. Workers will receive an extra $2 per hour for shifts they work during the COVID-19 pandemic through the month of April.

Nick Schroeder | BDN
Nick Schroeder | BDN
Whole Foods management left a notice for workers by the time clock in the supermarket's Portland store. The company has given workers a $2 per hour increase through April, but employees note that the benefit is less than they'd be entitled to if they were classified as "emergency workers" or received hazard pay.

But workers scoffed at the incentive, and the Portland Whole Foods employee said the temporary increase pales in comparison to the benefits of receiving hazard pay — a federal labor relations provision that stipulates that employees are entitled to 25 percent more compensation while working under conditions that threaten their health and safety.

Whole Foods also has been criticized for its current sick-leave policy. CEO John Mackey suggested in a company email that workers can “donate” unused sick leave during the coronavirus to other colleagues who need it. In Portland, multiple employees recently donated time to a co-worker who faced a medical emergency. But workers say the cost of employees’ medical leave should not fall to other employees.

A Whole Foods spokesperson didn’t respond to an email from the BDN with several questions. The international supermarket chain was purchased by Amazon in 2017 for an estimated $13.4 billion, and almost immediately laid employees off. At the beginning of this year, Whole Foods cut health care benefits for roughly 1,900 of its part-time employees, and raised the bar to qualify for benefits from 20 to 30 hours.

An emergency relief package expanding sick leave benefits and cutting checks to workers passed through Congress this week, and more federal legislation is expected to be enacted soon. But the paid sick time the new legislation grants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t apply to companies with more than 500 employees, leaving workers at Whole Foods, Hannaford, Shaw’s and others not much better off than they were last month.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, business and government leaders are scrambling to find solutions. This week, governors in Minnesota and Vermont declared grocery store workers “emergency workers,” making them eligible for child care paid for by the state and local governments.

But that hasn’t happened in Maine.

 


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