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Grocery stores are ‘essential.’ Don’t use that as an excuse to leave the house, workers plead

Courtesy of Kelsey Worth
Lexington Co-op employees Sam Gardner, left, and Kelsey Worth pose wearing homemade face masks sewn by Worth.

Grocery and convenience stores are among the few remaining businesses that Western New Yorkers can patronize in-person, but some of the essential workers there caution customers to take shopping trips seriously. WBFO’s Kyle Mackie reports on efforts to protect local employees and what customers can do to help.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers special COVID-19 guidance for healthcare workers, older adults, pregnant women, people experiencing homelessness and even travelers. But the CDC hasn’t issued any specific guidelines for grocery store workers like Kelsey Worth.

“I would like to see more [guidance] for people who are essential employees who are not healthcare employees,” Worth said. “There’s really been no information that I’ve gotten about how to go to work during this time.”

Worth works at the Lexington Co-op in Buffalo, where she said she’s often on the cash registers.

Credit Kelsey Worth
Signage at the Lexington Co-op on Hertel Avenue instructs customers on new procedures for cashing out.

“They [the CDC and health experts] say, you know, ‘Stay home, stay six feet away from people,’ and when there’s a customer two feet in front of you and they’re giving you money and you’re touching all the stuff that they touched, there’s no advice on how to handle that situation.”

And it’s not just the CDC that’s coming up short. The New York State departments of Health and Agriculture and Markets issued joint interim guidance for food retailers and manufacturing facilities on March 14, however, the four-page document focuses almost exclusively on cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

In a written statement provided to WBFO, a Department of Agriculture and Markets public information officer said the guidance provides “important sanitizing and cleaning information, as well as a protocol that outlines that employees should not report to work if they are ill, continue proper hand washing/hygiene, and actions to be taken if an employee becomes ill to protect other employees and consumers.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also issued general workplace guidance, which makes one mention of “some high-volume retail settings,” but is not industry-specific.

Credit Kelsey Worth
The Lexington Co-op is one of several local grocery stores now installing Plexiglas shields at cash registers in an effort to better protect cashiers.

“We never think about this stuff because nobody thinks about supermarkets as a place to do infection control. But now it is,” said Brian Brown-Cashdollar, program director of an advocacy group called the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health, or WNYCOSH.

Seeing the lack of guidance for grocery stores, WNYCOSH published its own advice for both companies and workers on March 19. Some of the suggestions included using floor markings to distance customers, scheduling handwashing and cashier station sanitation breaks, and encouraging customers to pay with credit cards over cash. WNYCOSH also urged businesses to be alert for racism or discrimination against workers of Asian descent due to the novel coronavirus’ Chinese origin.

As of press time, some—but not all—of WYNCOSH’s recommendations have become the new normal in Western New York grocery stores. The National Grocers Association also published a list of best practices for its members on March 30.

“I mean, two weeks ago, I was told that people wouldn’t even adopt what we had here on our guidance,” Brown-Cashdollar said. “I am happy that most of the chains have done that and have attempted to go beyond.”

Credit Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Whole Foods Market employees planned a national "sick-out" on Tuesday, March 31, to demand hazard pay, health care benefits and paid sick leave for all workers.

For example, Wegmans, Tops, and other stores, including the co-op, are now installing Plexiglas shields in an effort to protect cashiers. Some stores are giving raises or getting pressured by employees to do so; Whole Foods employees held a national “sick-out” on Tuesday to demand higher wages and universal paid sick leave (the Buffalo Whole Foods declined to comment on whether the protest impacted local operations). But Worth and other local grocery workers say they also have concerns about customer behavior, not just how their companies are responding.

“Grocery stores are an essential service because people need food,” she said. “They're not a place that you should be going to pick up one or two things. They're not a place that you and your partner should be going to because it's nice out and you're bored and the grocery store is open.”

Basically: take trips to the store seriously and don’t go if you don’t need to—especially not if you’re sick.

“We’re cleaning and sanitizing as much as we can, but we can’t get to every cart or every basket in between every customer,” Worth said. “So, wear gloves, sanitize your cart if you can. Just go in and know what you're doing, know what you need, go get it, avoid other people and then go home.”

Dash’s employee Sam Gallivan shared another piece of advice for shoppers.

“I know you’re probably stressed as well, but don’t take out your stress on workers who don’t have that much to do with it.”

Gallivan works part-time in Dash’s prepared foods section. Like Worth, he’s been under more pressure at work over the past several weeks but not so much in terms of protecting his personal health.

Credit Kelsey Worth
Grocery store workers are asking customers to understand that some regular services are not available during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's been stressful because of the amount of customers but not so much because of the disease. It's more so just, there's a lot of work we’ve got to do because there's all these customers here,” he said. “About a week ago it was easily twice the customers I’ve seen at peak times before but at, like, seven in the morning or just these bizarre times.”

Gallivan asked customers to be patient and to understand that some items may not be prepared at whatever time they’re shopping. For example, rotisserie chickens might not be hot and ready at 7 a.m.

“Grocery stores especially don’t want to get anyone sick,” Gallivan said. “No one expected or wanted this to happen, but we’ve just got to do the best we can to get through it.”

And the best thing all customers can do, according to both WNYCOSH and the Erie County Department of Health, is to take themselves out of the equation entirely.

“Order online and pick up,” said Brown-Cashdollar.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
As of press time, social distancing measures are now widely implemented at area grocery and convenience stores, as well as pharmacies.

The county health department also offered these tips for customers to follow while shopping:

  • Essential shopping only
  • Shop at off-peak hours
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your face with your hands
  • Wipe down shopping cart or basket handles if possible

As for the protection of grocery store employees like Worth and Gallivan, the department said in a written statement, “Our recommendations for grocery store employers, employees and consumers who go into any store are the same. Essential shopping only; stay home and isolate yourself from others in your household if you are ill; maintain at least a 6-foot distance; wash your hands frequently with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds; clean, disinfect and sanitize frequently touched surfaces and objects.”
Still, four days a week, when Worth’s shift ends, she struggles to leave the worry behind.

“I try to keep in mind when I get home that I have been careful and I try to tell myself that I’m doing as much as I can right now. And that kind of has to be good enough,” she said.

Worth also said she and her co-workers have always taken their jobs seriously, and now, “it’s nice to see that other people are kind of realizing that too.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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