Isabella Zou

It’s early November, and the aisles of Stop & Shop are thronged with homemakers hunting for turkey stuffing, green beans and cranberry sauce. The lines stretch back into the aisles; the self-checkout area is packed. Weaving between the holiday shoppers, masked grocery store workers juggle the demands of their work with the knowledge that any one of their customers could be carrying COVID-19.

“People who work in grocery stores didn’t expect to become frontline essential workers,” Joe Jarmie, a meat cutter at Stop & Shop, said. “But when [the coronavirus] really got off the ground, there was no way to stay away from people. There was no way to stay safe.”

For Jarmie, 65, meat cutting runs in the family. His father was a meat cutter. His five uncles are all meat cutters. His grandmother was a meat cutter and one of the only women he’s known who worked behind the deli counter. Jarmie entered the profession at 18 and is now the head of his department at the Stop & Shop in Madison, Connecticut. “I’ve been a meat cutter going on 35 years,” Jarmie said. “It’s really all I wanted to do.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Jarmie and his co-workers had to fight for every protection. “I basically work in a refrigerator, and [management was] giving us one mask. They were getting wet, difficult to wear and breathe [in],” Jarmie said. “One mask is not going to cut it.” After negotiating with management, Jarmie began receiving two masks a week. The CDC has since issued policies that offer store workers some measure of protection, such as social distancing guidelines and directions for surface hygiene. But the pandemic has meant that much of the work of ensuring the safety of Stop & Shop and other grocery workers has been left to individuals like Jarmie — and to the unions who represent them.

THE SHADOW FRONTLINE WORKERS

“THE HAZARD PAY IS GONE. THE HAZARD IS NOT!” declared the headline of a petition sent out to the members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) in May. The petition pointed out that Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent corporation, posted first-quarter profit of around $1.1 billion — up 40 percent from the same period in 2019 thanks to increased spending by the public. “Masks, social distancing and other safety measures are still in effect and so should the hazard pay,” the UFCW argued, referencing the extra 10 percent the company tacked onto workers’ paychecks in March.

Employees like Jarmie experienced a transformation from deli staffers and shop tellers to frontline workers almost overnight. When New Yorkers began a daily 7pm salute for medical workers in late March, signs stating “not all heroes wear scrubs” began appearing in grocery stores. According to Keri Hoehne, the executive vice president of the Local 371 union, grocery workers expressed a blend of frustration and gratitude with their unlikely casting as “COVID heroes.” “They’re frontline workers and they didn’t choose to be. For the most part, they want to go to work and get enough money to pay their bills and balance their family life,” Hoehne said. “They were made out to be heroes, and they were thankful for that recognition, but really they were like, ‘I’m just trying to hold my life together here.’”

The introduction of hazard pay was able to achieve what mere gratitude could not, tangibly improving grocery workers’ lives. “I have people that bought a car who otherwise weren’t able to buy a car,” Hoehne said. “Having an extra $50 a week in their paycheck, they were able to get a down payment and otherwise couldn’t have done.”

But only three months later, on July 4, Stop & Shop ended its “appreciation pay,” citing the “transition back to pre-COVID levels of customer traffic and demand.” The announcement sparked friction between the corporation and the union. Stop & Shop advocated a return to business as usual, with only masks and plexiglass to signal a difference; the unions argued that business was as dangerous as it had ever been. “By and large, the public was back to work. The company just kind of decided that the hazard wasn’t there anymore,” Hoehne said. But she believed that the end of lockdown — and consequent increase in COVID spread — only increased the risk faced by grocery workers. “Everybody goes to the grocery store, so it’s just a constant influx of new germs and new people and new concerns.”

With Stop & Shop unwilling to acknowledge the continued risk grocery workers faced, the union began a seven month campaign to reinstate hazard pay — and with it, recognition of the dangers encountered by those now termed “shadow frontline workers.”

THE GROCERY STORE IS THE FRONT LINE

Today, most Stop & Shop stores offer disinfectant wipes at the door and keep plastic arrows tacked onto the floor to direct the flow of shoppers. But Jarmie is concerned that customers are not taking sufficient precautions. Some disregard social distancing policies entirely. “If people need a plastic bag, they reach over your shoulder,” he said. “They’re wearing a mask, so they think they’re safe. But masks aren’t perfect.”

For Hoehne, who has represented grocery store workers — including Jarmie — for the last 18 years, working with the union is a blend of the professional with the personal; over the past 11 months, her Facebook profile picture has been framed by the words, “I stand with Stop & Shop workers,” “Thank you, grocery workers,” and “The grocery line is the front line.”

During the early days of the pandemic, Stop & Shop expressed resistance to staff wearing masks; the unions pushed back. “The corporation really came out and said, ‘We don’t want you to wear masks because we don’t want the customers to think you’re sick. We don’t want to send a bad message to shoppers,’” Hoehne said. “Thankfully, with a lot of pressure from us and some conversations with the company, we were able to, within a matter of days, turn that attitude around.” Stop & Shop later installed plexiglass shields and provided free N95 masks to workers in an independent bid to limit the spread of the virus. “To their credit as a corporation … they responded to it. They didn’t fight for very long,” Hoehne added.

Grocery store workers were hit hard by the confusion and inertia that characterized the beginning of the pandemic in the US. Results from a study conducted in the spring on the prevalence of COVID-19 infections amongst grocery workers in Boston showed a 20 percent infection rate — dwarfing the 0.9-1.3 percent rate in the broader population. Most cases were asymptomatic.

The results came forward in a flurry of concern about the spread of COVID-19 among customer-facing store workers. In the U.S., the $800 billion grocery industry employs more than 3 million people, all of whom have been classified as essential workers.

According to Hoehne, early March saw around a dozen UFCW members falling sick each week. Those numbers dropped as unions raised awareness around the issue and demanded that employers took necessary precautions to dampen the spread. Crucially, grocery workers’ safety is predicated on the treatment of COVID-19 as a crisis; as the country edges into the tenth month of the pandemic, the UFCW is fighting to retain a sense of emergency around the virus.

POLICY VERSUS REALITY

The biggest concern facing store workers is the shoppers themselves. As the pandemic drags on, vigilance around masks and social distance is waning. “There are always people who are refusing to wear masks,” Hoehne said. “We’ve been very clear with our members and with the company that it is management’s job to deal with somebody who’s not wearing a mask, but often what’s happened is it just falls to our members.” The union brought the issue of mask security all the way to the governor’s office. The recommendation from the state of Connecticut: workers can call 911 if they need to enforce the policy. “In one of our delis, they’re talking about customers who lean over on the counter and take their mask off so they could hear them place their order,” Hoehne said. “So that just kind of wears you down.”

“I mean, we didn’t really sign up for this,” Jarmie said. “But we want to make sure people are fed. Just keep your distance and we’re more than happy to help you.”

These risks are further exacerbated by the store’s layout. Customers at the Whalley Ave. Stop & Shop’s self-checkout counters enter a fenced-in area of self scanners that are within four feet of each other — making social distancing between customers implausible. And customers often need help from staff, further increasing the density of bodies. “When our members have to approach there’s not any glass plexiglass separating them,” Hoehne said. “The company tries to say, ‘Well, it’s self scan,’ but that’s just not the reality.”

Compounding these failings is the sheer number of people moving through the store every day. While the governor has placed a 50 percent capacity limit on grocery stores, that number is based on an estimate of maximum capacity. “The regular supermarkets are so big that 50 percent [capacity] is like the busiest day you’re going to have before Christmas,” Hoehne said. “You never get up to [the limit]. So it’s still gonna feel like a ton of customers in the store — and you’re well within the guidelines.” Within the densely packed store, social distancing quickly gives way to convenience.

With policies breaking down in practice, many employees can only hope that customers will keep the safety of grocery workers in mind while on their weekly shopping run.

RISK BAKED INTO A PAYCHECK

Pat Valdez, age 62, has spent most of her working life in the aisles of the Whalley Ave. Stop & Shop. “I was hired in 1975, so I’ve worked there for 45 years. I should be coming up for an anniversary,” Valdez laughed. Valdez works an in-person desk job in the store, monitoring sale prices and creating shelving tags and signs.

For Valdez, the threat of COVID-19 is amplified by chronic health issues. She has multiple sclerosis and worries about the increased likelihood of serious health complications should she contract the virus. “My doctor is constantly asking me, are you taking all the precautions necessary?” Valdez said. “And of course, I am. But I’m still out there.”

Although Valdez works in an office space away from the foot traffic, she recounted that a friend with the same job recently contracted the virus. After a stint of serious illness, her friend recovered — and went back to work. “You can stay out for up to two weeks, and they will pay you whatever you were scheduled to work,” Valdez said. “But beyond that, I’m not sure exactly.”

Despite the rising risk she faces, Valdez doesn’t feel she can take time off. “In the back of my mind, I’m like, I could catch it,” she said. “I’m not the only one in the store with a compromised immune system. But we keep coming to work every day.”

When Stop & Shop announced its decision to rescind hazard pay from Independence Day onwards, the unions organized to counter the change. But they faced a technical challenge — there was no prescient text in union members’ contracts that covered pandemic risk, and consequently no legal grounds on which to demand hazard pay. Hoehne explained that the unions bargained with the company but reached a “stalemate” — Stop & Shop wasn’t budging. So union leaders took their concerns to the newspapers and to the streets.

Hoehne and her colleagues attempted to leverage the only tool available to the union — public sentiment — through negative press, public pressure and pop-up leafleting throughout New England. “Everything we got was just because of public pressure,” Hoehne said. “We did not have the contractual power to do this. We have since started bargaining language [in workers’ contracts], so we’d be able to in the future. God forbid this happens again.”

After weeks of pressure from the public and union allies, on Sept. 25, Stop & Shop chose to reinstate hazard pay in the form of a lump sum that retroactively covered the summer months, ending on Aug. 22. But as temperatures began to drop and the holiday season loomed, workers once again found themselves without any compensation for the rising threat of infection.

“NOTHING IS NORMAL”

Jarmie’s wife has health issues. He spends his work breaks bent over the steering wheel of his car, hesitant to join the other staff in the claustrophobic back room. “But I have to work, you know, to support my family.” he said. “I have children and grandchildren.”

Jarmie joined the Local 371 union fresh out of high school. “I’m going on 47 years in the union. So, I’ve been around a bit,” he said with a laugh. He hopes that the union will continue to offer protection, but thinks Stop & Shop is heading down a path towards negligence. Hazard pay ended just weeks before the holidays sent COVID numbers smashing through previous records. “They started looking at the bottom line and tried to make the case that everything is normal again, and we don’t need this upgrade anymore,” Jarmie said. “Nothing is normal today. You got to adjust.”

Jarmie has noticed that Stop & Shop management has begun to meet indoors again. And from his vantage point behind the deli counter, he watched as the Madison Stop & Shop brought in a construction team to begin an interior remodel.

“They just shouldn’t be doing it. There’s got to be 20 people in our back rooms, in the aisle working close together — it’s ridiculous,” Jarmie said. “One of the customers called the state to report this.”

“I don’t know what the right solution is, but it’s definitely not the way they’re doing it. They just try to make everything back to business. And that’s my biggest beef with them,” he said, with a laugh at the vocational pun.

THE HAZARDS OF THE HOLIDAY SEASON

For many, the holidays mean time off work and lavish meals on the table. For grocery workers, Christmas means extra hours behind the counter. “Everyone was buying all the toilet paper and Lysol, the macaroni and rice. People were working extra hours,” Valdez said, thinking back to the first grocery-stampedes of the pandemic. “It was kind of like a blizzard.” As holiday shoppers flocked to stock up before Christmas, Valdez says she witnessed this phenomenon all over again.

Hoehne hoped that this increase in risk — in late December, the country reported over 200,000 new cases a day — would warrant a reinstatement of hazard pay. But the unions faced an obstacle: the paperwork they signed in the heat of the summer months. With family livelihoods on the line and the future opaque, the unions signed a deal with the company. The deal outlined a promise not to return to the negotiation table unless another lockdown was announced — but that may never happen.

In the months since the unions agreed to the deal, the political climate has made a state-wide lockdown near impossible. “We’ve continued to put the pressure on them, and try to talk to the company,” Hoehne said. “We don’t know that the [Connecticut] governor is going to lock things down again, but the stores are busier than ever. Our members are definitely exposed.”

On Jan. 4, after weeks of negotiations with the union, Stop & Shop agreed to a third round of hazard pay — a one-time payment of $300 for full-time workers, and $150 for part-timers — which for most is the equivalent of half a week’s pay. “It seems to me that [the corporation] has made a lot of money that they should be sharing more with front line workers,” Valdez, who had hoped for weekly hazard pay, said. “I believe most associates feel this way.”

While they wait for the vaccine rollout, Valdez and other grocery workers are left in the twilight world of a pandemic that’s gone on too long, a public that is weighing safety against seasonal gatherings, and a company with no legal impetus to compensate them for their hazardous work.

For Jarmie, most days are a battle to remain alert.

“We’re tired of wearing a mask and doing a lot of things,” he said. “But we just can’t let our guard down.”