On the coronavirus front lines: Grocery workers 'vulnerable' as panicked shoppers crowd stores

It's "unlike anything I’ve ever seen at work," one grocery store employee said. "Stockers were getting pushed out of the way for toilet paper," and customers were "fighting over beans."
Image: Nancy Pesapand
Nancy Pesapand, 92, center, grabs bananas as a worker restocks the produce section of a Stop & Shop supermarket during hours open daily only for seniors, in North Providence, R.I. on March 19, 2020.David Goldman / AP

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By David K. Li and Sarah Kaufman

They can't work from home.

They spend hours a day within a few feet of a never-ending line of strangers, despite public health guidelines on social distancing.

And rather than their work slowing down, it has speeded up.

America's grocery store workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, helping to keep the nation's 330 million residents alive and fed in an uncertain and frightening time.

The suddenly crucial role of grocery store employees prompted the states of Minnesota and Vermont to reclassify them as essential emergency workers, affording them benefits often similar to health care providers and first responders.

As panicked shoppers snap up toilet paper and dash for express lanes, overburdened grocery employees are clocking in at all hours to keep up with pandemic-driven demand.

Recent days have been "unlike anything I’ve ever seen at work, as "stockers were getting pushed out of the way for toilet paper" and customers were "fighting over beans," Journey Carnahan, who works at H-E-B Grocery in central Texas, told NBC News.

Despite such hand-to-hand combat in the aisles, Carnahan praised his bosses for protecting employees by limiting store hours and meticulously cleaning every surface possible.

"We have multiple bottles of cleaning spray to wipe down our check stands. The company installed sneeze guards on the check stands, as well as handing out bottles of hand sanitizer," he said.

"I personally wash my hands every chance I get, as well as putting on hand sanitizer so much my hands are dry and cracking by the end of my shift," Carnahan said.

The tension felt by consumers in the checkout line is rubbing off on some employees.

"You can feel how stressed out everyone else is," Chloe Gordon, 22, an employee of Target in, McKinney, Texas, told NBC News. "I just feel stressed out for others."

Grocery store workers, unlike health care providers, are not on the whole being given masks or other protective gear to wear on the job.

But some localities are passing rules to protect both store employees and their customers.

The Los Angeles City Council this week enacted measures that mandate markets, as well as drug stores and food-delivery businesses, to provide "all necessary sanitary cleaners," give workers time to frequently wash their hands, and provide any necessary protective wear.

“These are workers that are on the front lines of this public health emergency, and we have to make sure they have the protections they need throughout their shifts,” City Councilman Curren Price said.

“The goal of the package is for the safety and protection of the employees and customers."

Some grocery store workers said they understand the risks.

A cashier at Publix in central Florida said his company is doing all it can to keep the store clean, but that he is still bringing in his own sanitizer. He is rubbing his hands on it after every single transaction "as a precaution for myself and my family."

"Hands are getting pretty rough, but I want to be safe," he told NBC News on Friday.

The necessity of such employees and the weight of their workload is getting recognized by some employers.

Target, for example, announced Friday that it was boosting pay for its store employees by $2 an hour until at least May 2.

"We continue to experience incredible demand across our business, and Target's ability to help our guests in this unprecedented time would not be possible without the strength of our team," Target CEO Brian Cornell said in a statement. "I am proud and humbled by the dedication and humanity they show to our guests every day."

And Northern California-based Safeway will also raise wages by $2 an hour as "appreciation pay” for working during this pandemic, UFCW Local 8-Golden State President Jacques Loveall announced.

The supermarket surge comes against the backdrop of massive businesses closures due to the pandemic, one of the few places left for people to go is the supermarkets across all of urban, suburban and rural America.

"You can't have a greater aggregate of folks in one place than in market right now," said Los Angeles-based UFCW Local 770 President John Grant. "The markets are holding communities together."

That local represents 20,000 grocery workers in several counties in California, and Grant said contracts have no prohibition against managers scheduling for overtime, which he said is rampant right now.

But even if there were such restrictions, Grant said his members are regularly signing up for 12-hour shifts and 10-day-long runs - motivated by the promise of overtime pay and a desire to serve loyal customers.

“I’m filled with so much respect for the sacrifice and heroism, there's almost no one as vulnerable or exposed to the virus," said Grant, pointing out that every supermarket food item has untold number of hands on it through the wholesale and retail process.

The union officials said he reminds members: "Take care of yourself. If you have reason to believe there's a danger to yourself or a loved one, tell the store manager."

As grocery employees toil, some of their supermarket bosses can't sign up reinforcements fast enough.

The "for hire" signs and expanded schedules seem to be everywhere: Between Louisville and Los Angeles, from Seattle to St. Louis to San Francisco.

“And they’re not just hiring for the stores, we’re talking about all along the lines of distribution – the warehouses, the wholesalers, the truck drivers," said Joseph Tarnowski, vice president of ECRM, a firm that analyzes retail industry data.

“The challenge here is the pace that they need them. It’s just been so sudden. We went from zero to ‘We need 20 people here, 20 people there,’ and of course in numbers much larger.”

Comedic actress Kristen Schaal, best known for her work on the Fox comedy "The Last Man on Earth," even gave a shoutout to grocery employees.

"Hi Government! Can we give the brave heroes working in the grocery stores a bonus?" she tweeted.