Retail

With strikes and a 'sick out,' some grocery and delivery workers take defiant stance: One-time bonuses, temporary pay hikes aren't enough

Key Points
  • Along with health-care workers and police officers, grocery workers are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic — but often with low pay and little, if any, protective gear. 
  • Some retailers have temporarily increased wages or offered bonuses, but Whole Foods, Instacart and Amazon workers have planned walkouts this week to demand safer working conditions.
  • Five Whole Foods workers told CNBC they're afraid to go to work under the current conditions.
  • Nearly every week, grocers have announced new protocols intended to keep customers and employees safe, such as plexiglass screens between customers and cashiers.
A Pat's Farms grocery store worker wears a mask, gloves, and plastic visor on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York.
Al Bello | Getty Images

Temporary wage hikes. Special bonuses. Paid sick time.

In recent weeks, tensions are on the rise between grocery workers and their employers, spurring many to take public action. Employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods planned a "sick out" Tuesday, while some drivers who deliver Whole Foods groceries are calling for more protections. Thousands of people have signed an online petition circulated by Trader Joe's employees. On Monday, some Instacart workers held a nationwide strike. And a major grocery union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is advocating for workers to have access to coronavirus testing and protective gear.

While some of these labor actions failed to draw large-scale support, workers on the front lines of the grocery business still expressed concerns in interviews with CNBC. They said they continue to feel underpaid and ill-equipped to confront the dangers they face. 

Although nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population is under some sort of lockdown order, grocery employees are among the essential workers who are leaving their homes each day to stock shelves with products, staff cash registers at stores or pick up orders at warehouses and deliver them to shoppers' doorsteps. They have joined police officers, paramedics, nurses and doctors on the front lines of the pandemic. Unlike other first responders, though, they lack many key benefits. They are often low-wage workers, with little or no protective gear, and, in some cases, no health insurance or paid time off. And their employers have less experience handling health-care crises.

Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union, acknowledged grocery chains like Ahold Delhaize's Stop & Shop have raised wages and retailers like Walmart have offered special bonuses. But, he said he doesn't think these measures go far enough as grocers have seen a huge surge in sales, while hourly workers, by going to work each day, potentially expose themselves to a virus that can be deadly.

"If you're looking at a bonus like Walmart offered at $300, is that worth somebody's life?" he said.

Nearly every week, grocers large and small have announced new protocols intended to keep customers and employees safe as the number of coronavirus cases climbs. They've adopted a growing list of strategies: Reduced store hours to allow for more cleaning, special hours for seniors and vulnerable customers, extra hand sanitizer and handwashing breaks, plexiglass screens between customers and cashiers and floor decals to remind customers to stay six feet apart.

Some have announced temporary pay increases and benefits for employees. Whole Foods raised pay by $2 per hour for hourly employees and Amazon raised pay by $2 per hour for warehouse and delivery workers in the U.S. through April. Instacart added a bonus for contractors who gather customer orders and adjusted its default tip setting in its app in an attempt to boost their pay. 

A shopper and cashier both wear masks, gloves and the cashier also has on a plastic visor at the checkout station Pat's Farms grocery store on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York.
Al Bello | Getty Images

On Tuesday, Walmart detailed the latest steps it's taking to lower risks. It will start taking temperatures of all employees when they report to work, Walmart's executive vice president of corporate affairs Dan Bartlett said. The company will also provide gloves and masks that employees can wear, if they choose. He said employee feedback inspired these latest changes.

And despite the worries grocery workers express, the companies have been able to fill job openings posted to meet swelling demand — at pace of nearly 5,000 a day, in Walmart's case. The coronavirus has shuttered so many businesses from clothing stores to fine-dining restaurants, nail salons to dentist offices. Amid the numerous furloughs and layoffs, workers are looking for a steady paycheck. 

Walmart said it has already made nearly 50,000 new hires after pledging to add 150,000 people to its payrolls. It also announced it would pay a $300 bonus to full-time employees and $150 to part-time employees, in addition to accelerating its quarterly bonus.

Bartlett said a higher number of Walmart employees are calling in to take off from work, but said it's "still at a manageable level."

Critical tweets and online petitions

Employees at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's — which, like those at Walmart, are not represented by a labor union — have been among the most vocal in calling for increased safety measures and hazard pay, a term used for higher pay that's meant to compensate for higher risk.

A coalition of Trader Joe's workers, which goes by Trader Joe's Union, has tweeted criticisms of the company and circulated an online petition that's gotten more than 20,000 signatures. In the petition, the group called for the company to compensate employees with a time and a half hourly rate as hazard pay and guarantee pay in the case of a forced store closure. 

The group has also urged the company to let employees use a tool that could make them feel safer: Disposable gloves. It said store managers told employees that they could not be worn.

When contacted by email, a member of the group showed proof of employment, but requested anonymity out of concern for losing her job. She declined to say the number of employees who are part of the group or the geographic regions represented, saying it could jeopardize efforts to become a recognized union.

Trader Joe's spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said the company encourages employees to go home if they feel sick and offers up to two weeks of paid leave if they are diagnosed or quarantined. She said stores do allow employees to wear gloves, if they would like.

"The health and safety of our Crew Members and customers is our top priority — and always has been," she said in an email.

Calls for a 'sick out'

As the coronavirus outbreak has worsened, Whole Foods workers have put out numerous requests for more protection, and called for a global "sick out," when employees call in sick to work en masse, on Tuesday. The protest has been in the works since earlier this month, when national employee group Whole Worker circulated a petition outlining their demands. The petition now has more than 9,700 signatures. 

The group is asking for guaranteed paid leave for all workers who isolate or self-quarantine, health-care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, new social distancing policies, increased hazard pay and the immediate shutdown of stores where there have been confirmed cases.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the opinions were being voiced by "a small but vocal group, many of whom are not employed by Whole Foods Market."

"So far today we have seen no operational impact and we continue to operate all of our stores without interruption," the spokesperson continued. "There is no higher priority for us than taking care of our Team Members."

An Amazon worker holds a sign at the Amazon building during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Staten Island borough of New York City, March 30, 2020.
Jeenah Moon | Reuters

But the concerns raised by the group prompted 14 state attorneys general to write a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey last week. The AGs called on the executives to expand the paid sick leave policy at Amazon and Whole Foods. They noted in the letter that grocery stores like Whole Foods "remain one of the few places where people are regularly congregating in close quarters," making it "especially important" to minimize the risk of infection by extending adequate benefits to workers.

A Whole Foods spokesperson pointed CNBC to the company's website, where it lists a number of changes made at stores to promote employee safety. It has introduced daily, enhanced cleaning and sanitation at stores, enforced social distancing practices, as well as implemented daily temperature screenings for employees, starting at its Columbus Circle store in New York. The spokesperson added that Whole Foods encourages dialogue between team members and leadership.

'In the trenches' without any protection

Despite these measures, five Whole Foods workers told CNBC they don't feel safe coming into work under the current conditions and want the company to do more to protect them. All of the workers asked to remain anonymous so as to not upset their employer. 

One Whole Foods employee who works at a store in New England said she has been in quarantine for two weeks after she began showing symptoms of the coronavirus. Whole Foods said it's offering two weeks of paid time off to employees placed in quarantine, but the worker said that hasn't been her experience. The employee sent in a doctor's note last week to her manager saying she needed to self-quarantine, but was told she could not receive paid time off because she wasn't quarantined "due to travel," or from visiting a high-risk area. 

"I have worked [at Whole Foods] for a number of years and have never been this disappointed and angry at the company," the worker said. "...I can handle two weeks off with no pay but if it were any longer than that, no. It's definitely going to put me behind." 

She cannot prove she has the coronavirus due to a shortage of tests in her area and nationwide. But the employee suspects she has the virus, after experiencing a dry cough, fever and extreme fatigue, among other symptoms.

When she was still coming into work two weeks ago, she said her store had no disinfectant wipes, masks or sanitizer available for associates. In the Prime Now packing area, where workers put together bags of items for delivery, "people were on top of each other" because the room is so cramped.

At cash registers, cashiers stand just a few feet away from shoppers, despite social distancing rules, and they don't have enough time to wash their hands after taking cash from customers, she said. The store was allowing prospective employees to walk into the store for an interview, generating concerns that they could be sick and put others at risk in the facility. 

"We felt that we were just in the trenches and that we really didn't have any protections," the worker said.

Laura Chelton, an Amazon Flex driver who delivers Whole Foods orders, said she stopped working for Flex because she doesn't want to risk her health and safety. As contracted employees, Chelton said Flex workers have to provide their own protective gear, such as gloves, masks and sanitizer. 

Amazon has asked Flex drivers to take additional safety precautions such as disinfecting all frequently touched surfaces in their vehicles and other work equipment at the start and end of each shift, recommending they wash their hands frequently and use a tissue when they cough or sneeze. The company has also urged drivers to stay home if they feel sick and told them to maintain a safe distance from customers at all times. It also has required Flex drivers to stay in their cars when they pick up Whole Foods orders.

Other Flex drivers in Chelton's hometown of Seattle have expressed concern that Amazon has not given them adequate protections, she added. She recently created a private Facebook group to provide support for Flex drivers in the area amid the pandemic.

"When this hit, it seemed to me they should've tried to do something and they didn't do it," Chelton said. "I'm not going to Flex until [the pandemic] is over, or until it feels safe." 

An Amazon spokesperson didn't respond to requests for comment.

"Many cities and states have effectively shut down, making us literal emergency workers," said a Whole Foods worker, who is participating in the sick out. "The level of risk combined with the inflated profits from the past few weeks mean that us grocery store workers need to be fairly compensated, as well as given the option to self-quarantine without fear of being evicted." 

'We pay for everything'

Instacart is one of several grocery delivery services that has been overwhelmed with demand as shoppers remain stuck in their homes and face shortages at physical stores. The shift has highlighted the vital role these services play and Instacart workers feel their benefits and pay should reflect that.

On Monday, Instacart workers staged an "emergency walk off" to call attention to the lack of protections for the contractors, often called shoppers. The organizers claimed they have been denied essential safeguards to prevent them from getting sick while they pack orders at grocery stores. 

An Instacart spokesperson told CNBC that health and safety is its "first priority." In addition to bonuses and changing the app's tip setting, Instacart has rolled out no-contact delivery and hygiene stations at grocery stores. It has created its own hand sanitizer that contractors can order for free. The company also started offering sick pay for in-store shoppers and two weeks of pay for workers who test positive for the virus or are in quarantine. 

"They're being asked to go into these grocery stores, which are considered transmission sites — lots of people, lots of volume — and they're expected to go in there and serve the public."
Marc Perrone
President, United Food and Commercial Workers Union,

"Our goal is to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers, while also proactively taking the appropriate precautionary measures to operate safely," the spokesperson said. "We're focused on serving as an essential service for millions of families, while providing immediate earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people across North America."

Kristina Manley, who works as a shopper for Instacart in Seattle, said she feels the company has gone "above and beyond" to make sure workers are educated on how to best protect themselves while they're on the job. When she puts together shopping orders, Manley said most grocery stores offer her disinfectant wipes. At Costco, she's allowed to enter through a separate door to avoid coming into contact with large crowds. 

But for all the changes Instacart has made, there are some risks that can't be eliminated due to the nature of the job itself. Like many gig workers, Instacart shoppers are contractors, meaning they're responsible for their own medical care and have limited benefits like paid time off.

While Instacart provides sanitizer, the contractors say they have to provide their own personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. In their petition, Instacart workers demanded the company provide them with safety gear at no cost. Manley said she's been using a painter's mask and a set of gloves to protect herself while she's on the job. 

"We pay for everything. We're not employees," Manley said. She added, she has taken fewer Instacart orders in recent weeks because she doesn't feel safe enough, and won't take orders from certain stores where she feels safety precautions are lax. 

"If we were employees, we'd expect more, but they're not an employer," Manley said. "They're a way for me to make extra money."

'We need to get in the queue'

United Food and Commercial Workers Union put out a statement Monday expressing support for Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, Instacart workers and Whole Foods workers, though it does not represent the workers and they are not unionized.

The union represents 1.3 million workers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico at major grocery chains, such as Stop & Shop, Giant and Safeway, as well as other food-related employers like canneries and poultry factories.

Over the past few weeks, Perrone said fears of the coronavirus have been at the forefront of workers' minds, even though many have no choice but to go to work to provide their families. In a poll of union members, 80% of said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" that they could catch or be exposed to the virus at work.

"My members are scared," he said. "They're being asked to go into these grocery stores, which are considered transmission sites — lots of people, lots of volume — and they're expected to go in there and serve the public."

While grocery workers have higher exposure like doctors and nurses, Perrone said they have not been treated as first responders by some government and public health officials who decide who can get testing and protective gear, such as masks, which have been in short supply. The union has pushed to expand that definition to reduce the chance of workers getting sick and speed up their diagnosis.

"We need to get in the queue," he said.

Grocers don't have the depths of experience dealing with dangerous work, said Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program and a former Obama advisor.

With health-care workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires certain standards, such as employer-provided protective gear for hospital workers to wear when they draw a patient's blood. She said there are no similar rules for grocery workers now thrust into a similar situation — and there's few ways to quickly force those requirements.

"Whether the law requires it or not, this is just a moment that it's incredibly important for employers to listen to their workers," she said. "It's very concerning that there are a lot of really life-and-death decisions being made and so few workers have the ability to be part of the decision that drives those answers."

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