Skoog: Not all heroes have healthcare

Their labor has been deemed essential. Their livelihoods have not.

by Caroline Skoog

We are all absolutely and undeniably indebted to one another, every single day, in ways not always visible to us. Before the pandemic, the space between ourselves and our needs were clouded by convenience. The empty toilet paper shelves, ransacked canned food aisles and swelling health guidelines within the past month punctuate what has always been true: we depend on grocery and food workers, not just during a virus outbreak but every day. They are essential workers– not martyrs– and should be protected, compensated and acknowledged as such, emergency or not. 

As more grocery store employees contract the virus and the running list of COVID-19 Center for Disease Control guidelines grows, grocery workers have been framed as unsung wage-working heroes, clocking into the front lines and the high-risk points of transmission during every shift. The increased risk of their labor has been widely saluted with an extra two dollars and a smiley sticker that says “hero.” Not with masks, gloves, long-term healthcare plans or mental health services to recompense for the frenzy of scathing panic buyers, who are disobeying social distance guidelines by the masses. For many grocery workers, the rhetoric of heroism is the only mask their employer has provided.

These public demonstrations of admiration– tenacious “thank yous” murmured through plexiglass at the checkout line or companies avidly praising their employees in public statements– distract from the fact that these workers did not set out to be heroes. They only became heroes when their workplaces became hostile and unsafe enough to resemble a war zone. 

Moreover, fashioning grocery employees as heroes is based off the assumption that thousands of workers directly being impacted by the virus is inevitable. Thirty members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) have died from COVID-19 and 3,000 members have taken sick days after potential exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus, according to the UFCW. These estimates only represent unionized grocery workers. 

The trouble with martyrizing grocery store employees and presenting their vulnerability as inevitable is that it leaves employers, customers and governmental agencies off the hook. Individual stores are responsible for doling out protocols and protections for workers, resulting in fragmented, often ‘too-little-too-late’ safety measures among food distribution and grocery companies. This is to say, if employees were provided sufficient protective gear and offered benefits such as paid-sick leave from the get-go, and if customers followed social distancing guidelines, grocery workers wouldn’t be sent into an immuno-thunderdome each shift. People deserve to feel safe at work.

Last month, the state of Minnesota classified grocery store staff as “Emergency Tier 2” workers, granting those with school-aged children access to childcare provided by the state. This action is certainly a step toward progress and validates, on some level, the unusual danger foist upon grocery workers during this crisis.

I would say that providing provisional childcare at a time like this is the least we can do, but clearly many states, private companies and ruthless shoppers are managing to deliver much less than that. A Star Tribune article about Minnesota grocery stores noted, “Some grocery workers, scared for their and their colleagues’ health, [won’t] speak publicly on the issue… Several big national chains and small local chains also did not permit staff members to be interviewed.” Not only are employers potentially allowing the spread of coronavirus – they are spreading fear too. 

The least we could do is be decent people, but there seems to even be a shortage of basic civility. In a survey of over 5,000 grocery and food workers conducted by the UFCW, 85% of employees said customers are not practicing social distancing; 43% of respondents reported “instances of customers shouting at employees.” People who stock shelves are being blamed for shortages. COVID-19 has brought out the worst in people, and, by and large, wage workers experience the brunt of it. 

For people living paycheck to paycheck, as many hourly employees like grocery clerks do, work is not a choice, it is an imperative. Nobody should have to die for Whole Foods. 

Jobs that pay an hourly wage were underpaid and under-appreciated to begin with, and we relied on them just the same before the virus. The fragmented responses of individual stores to protect workers has needlessly jeopardized thousands of lives. Given the bewildering unpreparedness of grocery and food distribution companies in this emergency, a coordinated response could have saved lives. The fatal impact could have been abated by company benefits and employers caring for their workers. But, why is their protection limited to the duration of this outbreak?

Paid-time off and sick leave for grocery workers would help curtail the spread of illness not just today but down the line. Most of all though, social safety nets like universal healthcare would protect wage workers, as lack of private insurance raises the costs of any intervention for the virus, or any other illness for that matter.