Grocery store employees facing exposure to keep customers’ pantries full

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They are a new class of emergency medical workers: the more than 2 million Americans reporting to work each day to sell food and other household staples to a country in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.

As shoppers swarm stores, snapping up everything from milk to toilet paper, cashiers are there to ring them out. Stockroom employees replenish shelves as soon as shipments arrive. Their presence is a source of calm, signifying that, even as demand has surged, supply chains remain intact and the essentials that people need remain available.

“Workers in food stores are the ones keeping this nation from going into civil unrest,” said John Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the United Food & Commercial Workers, which represents 16,000 food workers in New York and New Jersey, including those at ShopRite and Key Food. “Because if there is no one working in the stores, we are in trouble.”

But these same employees are tired and, because they constantly interact with customers, fearful of getting sick themselves. Workers at a number of retailers say they are being denied medical supplies like protective masks and gloves, because their employers insist the gear is unnecessary and could stoke fears among customers.

Amy Askelson, a grocery worker in Kalamazoo, Michigan, said she uses hand sanitizer after each interaction with a customer. Askelson, 36, feels vulnerable. She has multiple sclerosis, meaning her immune system is impaired. And she worries about passing the virus to her 72-year-old mother, who has been helping take care of her children.

“I’m going to work every day with the general public and coming over to look at my kids, and I know I’m giving her those germs,” said Askelson, who declined to name her employer because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “We’re supposed to be standing 6 feet away, but I work in the self-checkout where you have to be right next to the customer.”

Many grocery employees say they have been working 70 hours a week since the virus set off more than two straight weeks of panic buying across the country. The more people crowding into stores, the greater the chance that employees will be exposed to the virus.

These workers do not have the option of working from home. “I have to take two trains to work,” said Cornelia Rodriguez, 21, a cashier at Food Universe Marketplace in New York, who is mainly worried about her young child at home.

State officials are starting to recognize the importance of grocery workers in the pandemic. Minnesota has designated the employees as essential workers, on par with nurses, doctors and police. That would allow them to travel freely in the event of road closures. In Vermont, grocery workers are now eligible for state-provided child care.

Retailers and food distributors are also trying to expand the pool of available cashiers, produce pickers and warehouse workers in an effort to spell exhausted employees and create backup in case of widespread illnesses.

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