“I’m doing my part:” the grocery store workers on the front lines of the pandemic

A+sign+outside+Whole+Foods+Market.+The+grocery+store+opens+an+hour+early+for+senior+residents.+

(Caty Buchaniec/Daily Senior Staffer)

A sign outside Whole Foods Market. The grocery store opens an hour early for senior residents.

Delaney Nelson, Reporter

When Jewel-Osco employee Lisa Snyder gets home from work, she keeps her shoes outside, where she sprays them with Lysol. She changes her clothes right away and washes them separately from the rest of her family’s laundry every night. She doesn’t wear jewelry to work and keeps her nails short. She takes recommended vitamins and cleans her house and workspaces constantly.

Snyder is a member of the “essential” workforce, as defined by Gov J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. Each morning she shows up to work at the store’s Frankfort location, she risks being exposed to the novel coronavirus and bringing it home to her family.

While Snyder said she feels safe going to work, she said the uncertainty about the virus scares her.

“We’re all praying that we get through this and no one gets horribly sick,” Snyder said. “We’re fighting an invisible battle because we can’t see it.”

Jewel-Osco is among many grocery stores that have implemented changes in light of the pandemic to keep workers and customers safe.

Mary Frances Trucco, the director of public affairs and government relations for Jewel-Osco, said in an email that some of the chain’s changes include the installation of Plexiglass Sneeze Guards at all registers, social distancing signage, and floor decals to implement the six-foot standard.

Trucco also said Jewel-Osco has paused self-service operations like soup bars, while increasing sanitization and deep-cleaning efforts, as well as contact-free delivery procedures.

“The health and well-being of our associates and customers is our top priority and we are also encouraging them to follow CDC recommendations to keep themselves and loved ones healthy,” Trucco said.

Jewel-Osco and some other grocery stores, including Valli Produce, have added an additional form of pay for workers during the pandemic. Jewel-Osco started a temporary compensation program of an extra $2 an hour for workers on hourly wages. The program currently extends through April 18, but may be evaluated on an ongoing basis, according to the Local 881 affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. George Pennacchio, store manager at the Evanston Valli Produce, said his store gives employees bonuses every week.

The changes made by Jewel-Osco were at least partly motivated by pressure from UFCW. Local 881 UFCW has continuously represented the interests of grocery store workers through the pandemic, requesting changes such as a temporary ban on reusable bags and the extension of hazard pay.

Susan Klein, a Jewel-Osco employee at an Orland Park location, is her store’s union steward. She said she thought her union, Local 881, “has provided every measure possible to keep us safe.” She said she was shocked at how quickly changes were implemented, noting the antibacterial pumps at each register, cleaning wipes at the doors for customers and supply of gloves for workers. Klein and Snyder both said Jewel-Osco has also limited the amount of people allowed in the store.

Klein said these changes make her feel better about going to work. She said she thinks the store has done everything it could to keep employees safe given the situation, and that employees were given the opportunity to stay home if they didn’t feel safe coming to work.

Klein said exposure to the public and possible contagion is the nature of the job, but now, there’s a higher level of fear. She said entering the work zone means being put in a situation that “could be detrimental to my health.” Her husband is diabetic, and she worries she might bring the virus home. She said to avoid getting anyone sick, she hasn’t seen her grandchildren since the governor implemented the stay-at-home order.

Still, she continues to go to work.

“I’m kind of doing my part to help in my small way of making sure people can get groceries and very crucial necessities, like baby formula, diapers, milk, eggs, bread, things like that,” Klein said. “I just feel like I’m doing my part.”

Snyder said while most of the community has been appreciative and cooperative with social distancing regulations, certain customer actions have made her feel weary. She said she has seen customers put their heads around the glass shields at the register, throw gloves that they wore in the store in carts or in the parking lot, and bring children into the store.

Jewel-Osco isn’t the only grocery store to make changes for workers. Kyriako Anastasiadis, store manager at D&D Finer Foods, at 825 Noyes St., said the store is sanitized continuously and employees are wearing gloves and masks. Anastasiadis encouraged people to shop at small businesses, noting the difficulty in keeping shelves stocked.

“It’s been difficult because we are the smaller guy,” Anastasiadis said. “There’s bigger stores out there, so they kind of get priority over us. But we’ve found ways to keep things stocked.”

Pennacchio said all of the changes implemented — like new signage and senior shopping hours — have been directed by the store’s ownership, and not necessarily the state government. He said the state has imposed relatively few restrictions upon grocery stores.

“They never said to wear masks, they didn’t limit hours that we’re open,” Pennacchio said. “They didn’t limit the amount of people that can come in the store. So what’s the difference between a restaurant and here?”

Klein said she’s never in 45 years felt more appreciated and thanked by customers than she has during the past few weeks of the pandemic, and noted that she thinks people have realized that grocery store workers are a necessity.

“Everyone’s scared,” Klein said. “But if you can’t feed your families and get necessity drugs, like at Osco that you need to live, like insulin for my husband, I think it would throw a real huge sense of panic into the whole situation.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @delaneygnelson

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