As coronavirus spreads, stocking grocery shelves starts to feel dangerous

Stocking shelves and interacting with customers at busy grocery stores, as with many retail jobs, take on added concern during a pandemic. (Shutterstock)

After overcoming a severe bout of shingles that progressed into a painful nerve condition and kept her out of work for months, Linda Bailey was eager to return to her job as a product pricer at a Meijer store in Rochester Hills.

“I have outstanding medical bills that I can’t pay,” said Bailey, 53, “so there’s been a rush to get to work.”

Then came the coronavirus, a global pandemic that has prompted government leaders in Michigan and elsewhere to enact dramatic “social distancing” orders designed to prevent its spread. The risk of infection is particularly high for people with existing medical conditions. That would include Bailey, who has diabetes in addition to lingering complications from her recent illness.

Now, with her medical leave set to end in a week, Bailey worries that returning to her busy store could mean walking into a petri dish of potential coronavirus carriers who could pass the infection to her. She’s faced with the choice of staying home and forfeiting desperately-needed income once she exhausts her pool of paid time off, or returning to work and gambling with her fragile health.

Health professionals recommend staying at least six feet away from other people to avoid contracting coronavirus. “But how do we do that in a grocery store that’s overrun with customers?” Bailey asked. “This is making me worry about my own mortality.” 

Linda Bailey, a product pricer at a Rochester Hills Meijer, worries that her job makes her more vulnerable to the highly contagious coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

Bailey is one of some 141,000 grocery workers across Michigan whose job can put them at added risk during the global coronavirus pandemic, even at businesses like Meijer that have taken steps to help workers burdened by the outbreak. Unlike doctors, nurses and other high-risk workers whose jobs often include generous sick leave policies and strict protocols to avoid contracting the virus at work, stock clerks, pricers and cashiers work for lower wages and often lack such protections.

An essential service, exempt from state shutdown 

Coronavirus is highly contagious and can spread easily through crowds. That’s why Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered closures of high-traffic facilities such as schools, restaurants and bars, and banned indoor gatherings of more than 50 people.

Grocery stores are exempt from the order, and few places have been more crowded in recent days. Stores have experienced Black Friday-level traffic as panicked shoppers stocked up on toiletries, nonperishable food and medical supplies in anticipation of a worsening pandemic that may confine them at home and fray the nation’s social and economic fabric.

“As government offices and other employers are shutting their doors, the retailers have to have theirs open,” said John Cakmakci, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers, Local 951, which represents more than 33,000 Michigan grocery, retail, meatpacking and food processing workers. “This is a scary time to have that job, and they’re doing courageous work.”

Many grocery workers have been working overtime to keep shelves stocked. Such job security could be viewed as a blessing at a time when many other low-wage workers, such as restaurant and bar staff, suddenly find themselves unemployed in the wake of Whitmer’s shutdown orders. But it also puts grocery workers in the virus’ crosshairs.

Related: Coronavirus layoffs cascade across Michigan. ‘What will I do?’ workers ask

“Any crowded place where people are going to be within six feet of each other is a heightened-risk place,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Center. 

Since the outbreak, Michigan grocery workers have peppered union Facebook pages with concerns about getting sick at work. Some called for hazard pay, others pleaded for limits on crowd sizes at stores, or worried about shortages of hand sanitizer for employee use. 

Even under normal circumstances, retail workers come into constant contact with potential pathogen sources. They touch germ-infested money. They restock shelves within arm’s length of customers and they clean public restrooms. 

As coronavirus raises the risk, grocers say they are taking precautions to keep workers safe. 

Costo said Tuesday it was limiting customers and practicing social distancing at its stores. Kroger is frequently cleaning commonly used areas and disinfecting carts, baskets and other equipment, a company spokeswoman said. Meijer has suspended service at meat counters and deli bars. Virtually all stores are urging employees to wash their hands frequently and stay home if they or a family member are sick. 

The Michigan Retailers Association, which represents grocers and other retailers across Michigan, has called upon Whitmer to let stores temporarily stop accepting recyclable bottles and cans as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.

“Unfortunately, at a grocery store, there isn’t an option to work from home,” said Amy Drumm, the association’s vice president of government affairs. “I know stores have been communicating closely with their employees and management about ways to keep themselves safe.” 

No Lifeline 

Even with the extra precautions, health experts say grocery workers and other retail employees face an elevated risk of on-the-job infection. 

Making matters worse, “many of them work week to week, paycheck to paycheck,” said Cakmakci, of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. That means contracting an illness that keeps them home from work could spell financial devastation. 

Meijer is allowing workers to take up to two weeks of paid time off if they receive medical orders to self-quarantine, according to an update provided to union members. It’s also allowing employees to miss work to care for children who are at home because of school shutdowns, and is providing employees with access to a telemedicine program at no cost. 

Kroger is offering financial support to affected employees through a special fund, a spokeswoman said.

“They’ve done a good job of trying to communicate what they’re doing for employees,” said Cakmakci, the union president, of grocers. 

Whitmer also signed an executive order Monday that extends unemployment benefits to workers who are sick, quarantined or immunocompromised but don’t have paid medical leave, as well as those who have an “unanticipated family care responsibility” arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The order doesn’t cover workers who are simply afraid to report to work and risk on-the-job exposure. In a letter last week, Bailey’s union informed members who work at Meijer that they can draw from their pool of paid time off if they are worried about contracting the virus at work. If they have no paid time off available, they may take up to 30 days of unpaid leave. 

A spokesman for Meijer declined to answer questions about worker safety, saying the company is declining media requests “so that our stores can focus on serving our customers.”

Bailey is keeping her eye on the news, hoping that by next week, she’ll have more clarity about whether it’s safe to return to work. She has been rationing diabetes medicine for months to stretch her $70-per-week disability payment. If she takes unpaid leave from work, she said she will likely have to stop filling prescriptions altogether.

Meijer and Kroger, meanwhile, are hiring more workers, aiming to keep stores open and stocked amid the coronavirus business boon.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Todd
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 11:40am

I work at one of these stores(Kroger) and they aren't keeping up their end of the deal as far as being extra clean. Since this virus has started the panic, our bathrooms are never equipped with hand towels and instead just a roll of paper towel that is not even in a dispenser and rolling all over the counter which isn't very sanitary at all. The employees are so overloaded that the bathrooms are being ignored compared to before. They used to clean them a half dozen times a day. Last time I was there, they weren't even cleaning them once every eight hours. I saw the same grime on the floors at 9:00am again at 4:00pm. They are forcing some to work OT even against their will and concern about getting sick. I personally have an 80 year old father that I have to think about but I'll keep on working as much as I can to help and just have to avoid my father. They won't pay me any more for that and I don't expect that. What I did find that was shady is that they told me in order to achieve health insurance I had to maintain an average of 25 or more hours per week for a year. My year was on Feb.9th and as I was trying to figure out how to get health insurance(Human resources told me they didn't know how to sign me up!!!), they cut my hours to 22.50. I have never called off or been late. Not once. This is how they are treating their employees so don't think for even a second that they care about anything more than their bottom line. I have solid proof of this hour reduction with my pay stubs to back this up.

Cindy
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 2:27pm

There are state inspectors—at least there were were when my father owned a grocery store. Alternately, County health department and special Coronavirus resources. I recommend that you call or visit and state your concerns, protecting your identity of course which you can explain to them. Hopefully they will issue ultimatums and fines to correct the problem. For health coverage, call directly your state representative, or higher up if need be. They need to know what’s happening. Also a lawyer who might help you know your options. Good luck.

Todd
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 6:30pm

Unfortunately there really is no way to prove that this is what they intended to do. I'm sure it's no coincidence but it would be interesting to try and prove. It's just odd seeing as how they need employees more than anything right now yet they are cutting hours and hiring new faces. New faces can't get insurance and the people like me who have been there are made ineligible suddenly. I'm glad there are other options but it's just so shady.

Cindy Miner
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 2:12pm

They can perhaps allow auto-checkout only, stock shelves only when closed to customers, be provided with disposable rubber gloves and other protective clothing and gear, limit number of customers at one time, make hand sanitizers available and in-your-face for customers- maybe even disposable masks, which while not terribly effective certainly increase awareness, screen for any signs of virus among workers and allow paid time off and medical benefits, along with many other precautions.

Tana
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 5:12pm

I have spoken with Kroger's Michigan Corp and the UFCW 876 about all of the issues expressed in above comments. They told us that since the CDC does not recommend masks or gloves they will not provide these items. It has been expressed by Kroger employees that we feel unsafe and should have the same protective gear as the health professionals. The Union is doing nothing and Kroger is not changing anything to help us. It is impossible to keep the 6 feet of social distancing and we feel that nobody cares about the employees of the grocery stores and that they are hiring extra people to replace us once we become sick. I have called the Governors office and tried to reach the CDC... Grocery store employees across the country should walk out and not show up for work on the same day so that these Stores understand that we are serious. We need help.

Cynthia K.
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 8:52am

For clarity, medical health professionals do not get "generous paid sick time off" benefit packages. We get the average standard paid time off package. We are expected to adhere to a very strict attendance policy as well. Hospitals are the worst employers when it comes to demonstrating understanding and being supportive of employee's who are out of work due to illness.

Bill
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 11:54am

Meijer has done absolutely nothing to provide a safe environment for their workforce. no protective equipment of any kind (not even gloves) is being offered. meanwhile the company is making a killing (no pun intended) on sales. the stores are dirty, particular the back rooms where everything enters. Meijer views their team members as an expendable commodity.Shame on you Meijer.

Todd
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 6:33pm

I bet! Today I was told that I can't wear gloves while handling money as a cashier because it may scare the customers(who also are wearing gloves). Kroger cares nothing about the employees. It's sad. Even people like me that have perfect work records.

Jason
Thu, 04/09/2020 - 3:34am

I cant imagine if you brought this up to the proper higher ups or through michigan that they would tell you no considering that sounds like the false marketing that happened on the cruises. Stuff like this i believe can cost them $1000 fine and a misdemeanor. Anyone should be able to work safely and feel safe to work in the environment. I understand its complicated in some ways but wearing personal protection equipment such as gloves or masks should be allowed. Money is dirty af. Just as well i would recomend periodic changing of gloves and availability of sanitizer just as well every employee should be allowed certain schedules to go to the restroom to wash hands on the hour if not as often as it would not effect the tasks given. Employees should be focussed on cleaning stocking and protecting themselves as well as others. If this thing is to continue investments and partnerships with some companies to create more self checkouts or even mobile checkouts to be used more.
Please dont take anything ive said personally just ideas that have come across in the past weeks

Julia Nielsen
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:41am

None of these stores is open 24/7 right now. Wouldn't it make sense for the store to remain open (after closing to the public) for restocking/pricing/anything else but checkout/cart retrieval during this time? I'd sure rather switch to 3rd shift for a few weeks or months than deal with shoppers during the daytime open-to-the-public hours! This may not be possible for all workers, but could reduce the number of workers exposed to the virus by the shopping public.

Ghost
Tue, 04/14/2020 - 3:58am

I work at Meijer in Gaylord my hours are going down week by week and last week 26.. this week 23 so I'll be getting probably $300 per paycheck if I'm lucky. Where as my gf is getting $1500 through unemployment every 2 weeks umm... Her home safe from 100s of people per day $1500. Me outside getting carts, greeting people or cleaning in the store or outside (picking up trash like gloves and masks) have $250 this week. 13.50 isn't worth it if the hours aren't there. Make it 20+ per hour then possibly worth the hazard going around.