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Grocery store workers are suddenly on the front lines in the coronavirus outbreak, and they’re anxious

At grocery stores, which have been deemed essential businesses and can remain open, workers are worried for their own personal health and have criticized the absence of hazard pay.

Empty frozen vegetable shelves at a Cherry Hill store.
Empty frozen vegetable shelves at a Cherry Hill store.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As public officials have ordered rafts of businesses to close amid the coronavirus outbreak and other retailers have independently opted to shut down, thousands of non-unionized national grocery store employees — suddenly on the front lines of a public health crisis — have had to contend with struggles beyond terse crowds and shelves turned barren by panic-buying.

At grocery stores, which have been deemed essential businesses and can remain open, workers have reported feeling anxious for their own personal health, criticized the absence of hazard pay, and expressed discomfort over the lack of assurance of guaranteed pay should their stores close.

“People take drugstore and grocery store workers for granted," said Wendell Young, president of Local 1776 Keystone State of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents employees for ShopRite, Acme, Rite Aid, and the state-controlled Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores.

Grocery chains that include Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s said they had taken measures to protect employees. Those workers are not part of Local 1776, Young said.

Whole Foods said in a public announcement that part-time and full-time employees started to receive on Monday a $2 increase to their hourly wage, in what could be interpreted to be the high-end grocery chain’s version of hazard pay. The same measure was extended to Whole Foods employees in the United Kingdom. The U.S. Department of Labor classifies hazard pay as extra compensation for dangerous or otherwise physically taxing work.

Also Monday, in an email provided to The Inquirer, Whole Foods said Amazon, its parent, would nationally hire for 100,000 full- and part-time jobs to fulfill a spike in demand from customers who wanted online deliveries.

Whole Foods said in the email that the online retailer would invest more than $350 million to provide increased pay for its hourly employees through April.

» READ MORE: What you need to know about buying food (and booze) during the shutdown

The company said in the email that all part- and full-time hourly employees could get up to two weeks of extra pay through March if they were diagnosed with coronavirus or quarantined because of it.

“Your health and well-being remain our top priority," according to the email, “and we continue to implement new measures in line with guidance from medical experts and health organizations to ensure the safety of our stores, facilities and offices.”

At Trader Joe’s, all crew members have been offered more paid sick time, the company said.

But the measures Trader Joe’s implemented so far have fallen short of what the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union had hoped for.

The coalition said that workers from stores to distribution warehouses were receiving no hazard pay and that no policy was put in place to allow all workers to wear gloves at registers. The group also requested forced-closure pay if stores are ordered to shut down.

“We have heard from workers and customers across the country who are concerned that Trader Joe’s isn’t doing enough to keep people safe — they are only doing things that create the illusion of compassion,” the coalition said in a statement to The Inquirer. “We’re hopeful Trader Joe’s hears these concerns and acts according to the needs voiced by their workers.”

Spokespeople for Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods were not available for comment.

About 35,000 people across Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia are unionized under Local 1776.

Young said union workers who chose to stay at home for their own safety or to take care of children were being paid in full and receiving benefits.

Unionized employees who remained at work were concerned but reassured by continued access to benefits, he said.

“People are tense," he said. “Maybe they’re scared, and our workers are taking the brunt of it. People are getting in their face about it. ... A lot of people don’t really want to go to work now. This is the worst thing we’ve ever faced in our lifetime.”

About 3,500 of the union’s members work at Fine Wine & Good Spirits, which shut down across Pennsylvania Tuesday.

Young said Local 1776 had been helping grocery stores find locals temporarily out of work to fill the void of employees. He said those workers would help stock shelves, clean stores, and unload trucks.