When Scott Nash, the CEO of Mom’s Organic Market, emailed his employees last month to thank them for “rising to the occasion heroically" as "front-line emergency workers,” some workers in Philadelphia thought that his words fell flat.

They say the chain had barely implemented any safety precautions for workers or customers. Staff were putting in 10- to 12-hour days just to keep up with demand and coworkers who had called out. Meanwhile, as recently as last weekend, customers were still coming in to the Center City store to buy a Clif bar, as if everything were normal — something that would change, workers said, if the store limited the number of customers who could come in at once.

“I’m not a hero,” said Mariane Leon, 31. “I didn’t sign up to work in a grocery store to be a hero. ... I’m scared that I have to work, but I don’t have anyone financially supporting me except myself.”

Leon is part of a group of almost 20 employees who are calling for greater safety precautions at Mom’s, where a worker at the Center City store tested positive for the coronavirus. Their demands include limiting the number of customers in the store, as well as hazard pay and two weeks paid time off for immuno-compromised workers. Masked workers delivered their demands to their manager Monday morning, as a line of honking cars circled the store — a protest in the age of social distancing. Mom’s also has local locations in Bryn Mawr and Cherry Hill.

On the heels of a nationwide day of action focused on Instacart delivery workers, theirs was the first grocery worker protest the region has seen during the pandemic.

The Mom’s protest offers a window into what it’s like for grocery workers — low-wage workers, most of whom are not unionized — who have found themselves on the front lines of a public health crisis as the coronavirus spreads across the country. They field droves of panicked customers as they risk catching the virus themselves — and they’re supposed to do it with a smile on their face.

Some have already died from the virus, including workers at Trader Joe’s, Giant, and Walmart.

Workers have called for hazard pay, and some chains have responded: Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, is paying its workers $2 more an hour for the month of April, and some independent grocers are paying $6 or $7 more an hour, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Mom’s, which recently raised its minimum wage to $14 an hour, paid its workers $7 more an hour from March 11 to March 21. A spokesperson said it will also pay workers $4 more an hour from March 22 to April 5, though two employees who worked during that period said they had yet to be informed of the pay rate.

The chain saw record sales of more than $100,000 in one day at some locations, Nash wrote in an email sent to workers on March 18.

Mom’s spokesperson Christine Koetz said the store has taken numerous steps to protect its customers and workers, including instituting “rigorous cleaning practices" and touchless payment, paying double-overtime to any worker who works more than 40 hour a week, and installing protective plexiglass at the registers. Koetz added that managers “have the authority to shut off customer flow to the store whenever a store becomes too crowded.”

Other chains, such as Giant Eagle, have reduced their hours in order to be able to properly clean and restock stores, as well as give their workers a break, said Wendell Young, president of the UFCW Local 1776, which represents employees for ShopRite, Acme, Rite Aid, and Giant Eagle. The union has allowed employers to break the terms of its contract and hire non-union labor, he said, because demand is so high and workers are exhausted.

Employees who aren’t represented by a union have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to organize and call for greater protections: Some workers at Whole Foods staged a sick-out last week to fight for, among other things, paid leave for workers who are in self-quarantine and hazard pay that’s double the currently hourly wage.

Lily Wolfson, center, a former Mom's employee, and Kaylee McGuffin, left, outside of Mom's Organic Market in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 6, 2020.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Lily Wolfson, center, a former Mom's employee, and Kaylee McGuffin, left, outside of Mom's Organic Market in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 6, 2020.

A worker tests positive

It was Friday evening when Alicia Serna Frausto heard that a co-worker had tested positive.

The worker “self-quarantined eight days ago, when the first symptoms appeared,” the company said in an email. “This employee was last in your store on March 25.”

Word traveled between workers on the shop floor because not everyone was checking email. But Frausto, 25, was frustrated that management didn’t mention it to any of the workers until the very end of the night-time huddle, hours after the email had gone out.

To Frausto, it was another sign that the company didn’t care about the safety of its workers.

“Every time I clock in, it feels like I’m stepping into a war zone,” Frausto said. “The store likes to pretend that everything is OK. There have been very little changes to the regular operations.”

On Saturday, a day after finding out about the positive case, Frausto decided to take an unpaid leave of absence.

The store has taken some measures to attempt to ensure the safety of its workers, employees said. There are signs around the store encouraging social distancing and tape demarcating six-foot distances for customers to line up, a measure that other grocery stores have implemented to mixed effectiveness. It’s offering one week of paid leave for workers over 60 who are not comfortable coming to work, and two weeks’ paid leave for workers who have tested positive for the virus — workers only need to show a doctor’s note, not a positive test result.

In an email sent on March 25, Nash said he didn’t believe it was possible to enforce social distancing in the store and that limiting the number of customers in the store would heighten anxiety.

He estimated that, at the busiest times, Mom’s stores would field at most 50 customers at once — much less foot traffic than the Trader Joe’s locations where they’re limiting customers, he said — and that was a low enough figure to allow customers to keep their distance.

Mayor Jim Kenney has said grocers and other essential businesses should manage store occupancy to allow for social distancing.

Cars drove past Mom's Organic Market.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Cars drove past Mom's Organic Market.

At the end of March, Nash reprimanded a group of workers from several different Mom’s locations for replying-all to an employee listserv with questions about Mom’s efforts to take care of its workers.

“We are inundated right now from EVERY direction and I’m sorry, but are not able to jump to meet your demands on your schedule,” he wrote.

One of them was Kaylee McGuffin, who has worked for the company on and off since 2014, when she lived in Virginia. McGuffin, 23, was fired a few days later and banned from all Mom’s stores. She said that she was told she was “too negative" and that a coworker had said she seemed unhappy at work. (A Mom’s spokesperson said: “All we will say is that there is evidence to support our decision.”)

It was true, McGuffin said, as "working during a pandemic is not a happy experience.”

In fact, she said, “it sucks."

“It sucks seeing customers come in and coughing on the card machines,” she said. "It sucks seeing customers touching five or six different apples. It sucks seeing people come in with a friend to buy a candy bar. So, yeah, it is not a happy experience working at a store that has not put in the proper safety measures during a pandemic. That is not a happy experience.”