At the start of the pandemic, they were called heroes.
Customers thanked them for working.
Employers gave them hazard pay.
A short six months later, the hazard pay is mostly gone, the gratitude comes less often for these front-line grocery and store clerks who are feeling underappreciated.
“We’re still heroes, but we’re just not recognized in pay,” said Jeff Anderson, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 executive director. “Our people are scared of going to work.”
These front-line workers ring up groceries, stock shelves, pack up orders for delivery or pickup. They’ve worked throughout the pandemic, wearing masks and gloves and sanitizing. Nationwide, it’s a job that can earn anywhere from $9 per hour to $21 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When it came to her safety, the pay didn’t matter to 59-year-old Christine Barrett, who formerly worked at Walgreens in Bend. Living with her immune-compromised sister, Barrett said she was concerned about contracting the virus. She often asked about her employer’s procedures for sanitizing the store and for keeping workers safe.
“I felt like I wasn’t important,” Barrett said. “It felt like none of the regulations were adhered to. Walgreens seemed to be one of the last companies to require customers to wear a mask.”
She said three co-workers that she knew of had contracted the virus.
Face coverings are required everywhere indoors in Oregon, regardless of what phase a county is in, under an order issued by Gov. Kate Brown.
Walgreens requires face coverings in all its stores nationwide to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Erin Loverher, a Walgreens corporate communications department spokeswoman. Stores have signs on the doors and make frequent announcements over the store’s public address systems reminding customers that face coverings are required, Loverher said.
“Our clinical and safety teams work closely with our field and store leadership to respond accordingly, which may include identifying and contacting individuals who may be at risk in order to self-quarantine or self-monitor their health, as well as third party industrial cleaning and disinfecting the location or impacted areas of the store,” she said.
Policies and procedures are reviewed periodically to ensure the safety of the workers and customers, Loverher said.
At employee-owned Newport Market and Oliver Lemon’s employees were given gift cards over the course of the five months, said Lauren Johnson, CEO of Rudy’s Markets Inc., parent company of the three grocery stores.
In addition, employees recently were given companywide raises, Johnson said. And when a customer comes in and isn’t wearing a mask, a manager is instructed to talk to that customer, rather than the clerk, she said. This takes the pressure off the store clerks.
Inquiry emails to Safeway and Fred Meyer were not returned to The Bulletin.
While working at Walgreens, Barrett, however, felt that not enough was being done consistently to protect the workers. In the middle of her shift a few weeks ago, she left the job.
“I felt they didn’t take precautions seriously,” Barrett said. “I used to work in a hospital. I know how germs are spread. Wearing a mask is a social contract. I wear one because I care about others and they should care about me.”
Frank Hendrickson, a United Food and Commercial Workers field rep for central and southeastern Oregon, said he’s heard of workplaces that haven’t embraced sanitizing against COVID-19.
“A lot of workers feel that the kind words are one thing, but when they get paid more, it shows appreciation,” Hendrickson said. “Take that away and the pandemic isn’t over, they don’t understand that.”
The union, which represents 29,000 workers in southwest Washington and Oregon, has 1,100 members in Central Oregon.
These front-line workers are exposed to COVID-19 and don’t have the protection of workman’s compensation in the event that they need to self-quarantine or take off time from work, Hendrickson said. The union is working to get them that coverage temporarily during the pandemic by working with legislative leaders, he said.
Nationwide, COVID-19 has killed 290 union members, he said, and about 13,000 workers have tested positive for the virus.
“Workers are still doing the same job they did when they were receiving the appreciation pay,” Hendrickson said. “They have customers openly coughing on them. And I’ve had a few reports from a couple of locations that the sterilization part has been relaxed.”