The coronavirus crisis is spurring record-breaking sales for grocery store chains, straining supply chains and exhausting employees. While many businesses are having employees work from home or are closing down to mitigate the spread of the virus, grocery stores have been designated a “critical industry” by federal agencies.
To learn more about what life is like right now on one of the many frontlines of the global pandemic, Labor Notes writer Chris Brooks spoke with Travis Boothe, a pharmacy technician and Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 steward at a Kroger store in West Virginia.
Travis Boothe: In the pharmacy, where I work, our staff has been overwhelmed this whole week. We can’t keep up with the demand. We operate on a very lean model. It’s a skeleton crew. Our pharmacy is just entirely bogged down. We could barely work effectively before the crisis. Now we are seeing how the lean retail model of running stores by pushing the smallest number of mostly part-time workers to do as much work as possible just becomes totally dysfunctional in a crisis. Most people in our store were part-time before the crisis, now there is an infinite supply of overtime because they don’t want to hire full-time employees.
Things have changed really quickly. Two weeks ago, nobody was panicking then because people were in denial. Nobody thought much was going to come of the virus. They were making jokes. And now I see a lot of panicked faces. People are terrified. Some coworkers are wearing masks and gloves, but that is not the norm because management is not providing them. Nobody is following CDC guidelines for social distancing or washing your hands frequently, like after you cough or handle money. We are exposed to floods of people at the cash registers. I think we are going to be hit hard by the virus. On top of that, there are shortages on all kinds of products and I expect that is a problem that will only get worse.
Before now, it was hard to get people involved in the union and talking about collective action. Now everyone is scared and everyone wants hazard pay, protective gear, they want to change safety protocols. We are starting to develop collective demands around health and safety.
My union is handling the situation the best they can, but there is no precedent for what retail workers are facing right now. That’s why it’s up the rank and file to lead the way on this. In these circumstances, the workers can’t be afraid to put their foot down. We hold all the power, we can make demands and refuse to compromise until our demands are met.
I see disaster coming at us. People can’t keep this up. The model of how we are running these grocery stores is not sustainable. People are working back to back ten- to twelve-hour shifts. There is no rest. It’s only a matter of time before people reach their breaking point. And everyone is worried about bringing the virus home to their families. At some point, the risk will just be too high and the pay too low. So we will see a lot of people refusing to go to work.
We have to organize that anger, fear, and frustration into collective action.
This has been excerpted from the full story in Labor Notes.