Our Grocery Workers Deserve Better

Nine in 10 registered voters consider food supply chain workers “essential” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19 didn’t really hit home for me until a few days ago, when I had a talk with one of my old coworkers at the local Safeway. She was normally the most talkative person in the whole store, always wearing a bright smile overflowing with bubbly spirt. Waiting my turn at checkout, I noticed right away something was off. Her visage was grim and she looked absolutely haggard. She was trying to be friendly with the customer in front of me, but it was clear her mind was elsewhere. When I got my chance to speak with her, it became obvious why. Her father had died recently, and she had been staying up crying every night. He had contracted Covid-19 here during his brief visit from Bosnia, and he didn’t make it. I tried talking to her as long as possible, hoping there might be something I could do or say, but another one of my old coworkers started bagging my groceries and aggressively ushering me through the line. I was holding up other customers.

As of writing this, there have been 262,673 deaths from Covid-19 in the United States. In less than a year, Covid-19 has killed more Americans than all of the military conflicts outside of World War 2 and the Civil War combined. From July 18th to August 22nd, the number of Americans that died each week from Covid-19 exceeded the average monthly death toll for American soldiers in World War 2. Every week since March 28th, Covid-19 has been deadlier for Americans than the September 11th terrorist attacks. As many as 40 million people are currently at risk of eviction, and food insecurity has more than tripled by some estimates.

As first responders, grocery store workers bear the brunt of this crisis. They face significantly higher rates of infection, hostile customers, and demoralizing workloads. They are not receiving the support they need. Most workers no longer receive hazard pay, conditions are often unsafe, and a lack of paid sick leave forces many to remain at work even if they feel sick. While all of this is going on, grocery stores have actually benefited from the virus and are raking in record profits. This is more than just statistics for me, it’s been present for me throughout the pandemic. About a month before her dad died, my friend had been telling me she was having trouble paying her rent. At Sprouts, I witnessed a woman yelling at workers for “discriminating” against her because she refused to wear a mask, putting their lives in danger. Another friend told me they knew someone at King Soopers who wasn’t even allowed to confront customers if they were being unsafe or weren’t wearing a mask.

Workers like Carol are “scared to death” to go to work. Carol is 70 years old and has asthma.

A system that fails to take care of the most essential and the most vulnerable in our society during a crisis is broken. It cannot be made any more clear than this that wealth does not “trickle down” from the rich. It cannot be made any more clear than this that our economic system does not care who suffers and who dies so long as profits are optimized. This is insanity. This is a wake up call. The security apparatus of our country underwent drastic, permanent changes immediately after the 9/11 attacks, but somehow our country can’t do a damn thing after nearly ninety times as many people have died.

Grocery store workers are pillars of our community, and they need our support. Part of that is emotional. We need to let them know that they are valued, and that they are indispensable. Every time I go to the grocery store, no matter how I’m feeling, I do my best to be positive, cheerful, and respectful towards the staff. They aren’t allowed to have a bad day. I remember while I was working at Safeway one of my coworkers was actually reprimanded for not smiling. I remember the daily alienation of sacrificing my individuality to act as the avatar of a corporation. If a customer has a problem with a store policy, the workers have to act as the face of the corporation and stand there and take abuse for something they had nothing to do with. Anything that I can do to make someone’s day a little easier, make them feel a little more human, their work a little more bearable, is worth it for me.

Support must be material as well. A society that forces people to work in unsafe conditions by threatening their livelihoods is antithetical to the concept of liberty. Food and housing are human rights and should be guaranteed for all people. Increases in productivity should lead to improved conditions for everyone, not just the wealthiest of the owning class. Workers should not be expected to meekly accept abuse or sacrifice their integrity every day to project a false sense of obsequious subjugation towards entitled, self-centered people. It’s not healthy for anyone in our society to live this way, and it doesn’t make sense when our technology and infrastructure has advanced to the point where mind-boggling opulence is not just possible, but practically trivial.

We have to tackle this issue from multiple angles. The most conspicuous solution is legislation. I am very fortunate to live in a state where ballot initiatives can be proposed by citizens and put up to a statewide vote given that enough petition signatures are collected. Things become more complicated on the federal level, and even without gridlock there are limits to what can be done through government policies. Traditionally, labor reform has been backed by the unions, which are currently quite weak in the United States. Building stronger and more active unions and promoting their membership can do a lot to help with collective bargaining and workplace democracy. The most advanced version of this is a worker co-op like the Mondragon Corporation, a federation of businesses that are owned and managed by workers. The largest corporation in the Basque region of Spain, Mondragon gives all workers a high level of democratic control over their workplace and has an impressive record of innovation and efficiency.

Working in a grocery store today is itself a heroic act

Transitioning away from traditional structures of power ultimately relies on alleviating people’s dependence on those structures. This can be done on the community level. Building a safety net where members of the community are able to lose their jobs and still pay their bills means that people have more room to stand up to injustice without the fear they may lose everything. Community gardens can provide some food security and independence from the supply chains of massive corporations, while voluntary service provides relief for vulnerable people during times of stress. I’ve written a separate article that talks about the importance of community building for creating change, and there is no better time for that than now.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas gives a Ralphs supermarket cashier a gift bag containing free masks

Our grocery workers deserve better. They are the ones who guarantee we get food every week. They push through their own personal difficulties every day and risk their lives so procuring the necessities for life can be as smooth and effortless as possible. At the most basic level, I hope that people can imagine the lives of others complexly as possible and see each other as fully human in all circumstances. I hope we can hone in on our gratitude and recognize how important we are to each other. I hope we find the strength to help each other and demonstrate our appreciation loudly, openly, and often. This current crisis is only a snapshot of what is to come. We need to be ready for the tough times ahead if we are to maintain what we’ve built and progress further as a species. A lot of human beings have sacrificed an awful lot to get us to where we are now. Let’s live up to our promise.

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.

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