Why are grocery store profits more important than the workers we call essential?

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Emily Eberly/Oxfam

Supermarkets are failing their workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's how we can push them to do better.

As we have all witnessed by now, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed many ugly truths about our country’s systemic inequalities and how our economic systems are failing the people most at risk. Nowhere is that more visible than the grocery industry. When stay-at-home orders went into effect, grocery stores became our lifelines, and their workers proved to be essential to keeping us fed.

With so many of us rushing to stock up on pantry items, combined with the phenomenon of panic buying, US grocery store profits have soared since March. Yet the more than three million mostly low-wage workers tasked with ensuring there’s food on our tables are living paycheck to paycheck, often forced to choose between minimizing risks to their health and making enough money to get by. Many grocery stores had been supporting employees ineffectively well before the spread of COVID-19.

We wanted to see whether some companies had stepped up to better protect their workers during the pandemic, so we analyzed the policies of Albertson’s/Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon in the first months of the pandemic. We looked at five key areas: paid sick leave, the provision of protective gear, hazard pay, engagement with trade unions, and dependent care.

While all the supermarkets we surveyed have improved some of their policies, none are doing enough to protect their workers’ safety and health. Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods/Amazon are especially lacking when it comes to responding to worker concerns. It has been reported that Amazon fired workers for speaking out.

Cyndi Murray, a Walmart associate for 20 years, told Oxfam ally group United for Respect that Walmart’s executives and board members “are too far removed from our day-to-day realities as employees to be able to properly protect us or customers during this pandemic. If Walmart’s serious about saving lives, they need to include hourly associates in decision-making during these moments of crisis, and beyond.”

More than half of grocery workers in the US work without paid sick leave. None of the companies we studied have policies that allow workers to take preventive measures against COVID-19 without taking either accumulated paid time off or unpaid leave. (This means that someone who has not earned paid time off would not be able to take the time or would be forced to give up pay by staying home.) In order to qualify for paid sick leave, workers must have been ordered to quarantine by a government agency, by a healthcare provider, or by the company, or they must show that they tested positive for COVID-19. In many parts of country, that documentation may be difficult to obtain.

According to a Washington Post analysis, since late March, about 100 grocery workers nationwide have died of complications from the coronavirus, and 5,500 others have tested positive for COVID-19.

In the early months of the coronavirus response, unionized workers at major grocery chains were able to negotiate “hazard pay,” temporary raises or bonuses to compensate them for putting their lives—and by extension, their families’ health—in danger. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that these modest measures—called “hero pay” by some companies—are already being rolled back. Some way to treat “heroes.”

This crisis has shown the need for substantial improvements in worker protections. That’s why we’re calling on supermarkets to respect the rights of their workers and ensure that those workers have a voice in their treatment. We ask these companies not just to acknowledge these rights, but to take long-term action, including embracing—rather than shutting out—unions and worker advocates; guaranteeing paid sick leave, compensating workers fairly for putting their lives at risk, and adopting better health and safety protections.

You’ve already helped us achieve some progress—but the fight isn’t over

Thanks to concerned consumers, Oxfam has collected more than 52,000 signatures calling on the US supermarket sector, including Amazon-owned Whole Foods, to protect its workforce and reduce human rights risks. This week, we are delivering the signatures via email to executives at Albertson’s/Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon.

An Oxfam staffer at a Whole Foods location in New York. Shoppers around the country are calling on Whole Foods to better protect their workers.

We must keep the momentum going. Despite nationwide rollbacks of stay-at-home orders, the pandemic continues. As cities begin to reopen, workers are worried about their risk to exposure.

A Whole Foods associate in Florida told Oxfam in late May that when Whole Foods goes back to “normal” this month, workers will lose their extra $2/hour of hazard pay, though the hazard will continue to exist. “We will also be punished [written up or even fired] for too many sick-outs. This doesn’t make sense …. I’m exhausted both mentally and physically.”

This is not the time for supermarkets to roll back their COVID-19 efforts to protect and support essential workers through this crisis. It’s the time to recognize workers as people, not as vehicles to gain profit.

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