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Many grocery employees are working in fear of their health. Experts say consumers can help by wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing. Getty Images
  • Grocery workers are becoming concerned about their health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A union official says 10 percent of their membership has declined to come into work due to health concerns.
  • Experts say shoppers can help protect grocery employees’ health by wearing face masks, observing physical distancing, and not coming into the store if they feel sick.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Behind every product on the grocery store shelf are workers who helped get it there.

Whether they’re restocking, working the registers, or tending to customers behind a counter, grocery workers are a key part of how we get our food, especially during a pandemic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), a union that represents more than 900,000 grocery workers, estimated in mid-April that 30 of their members had died from COVID-19, and nearly 3,000 food and grocery workers in their membership had been impacted by the illness.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the number of infections will rise and experts agree that it’s important to keep our grocery workers healthy.

Here, they discuss the protections stores have put in place, the impact on stores as more workers get sick, and how customers can do their part to help.

It took a major health crisis for many of us to appreciate the hard work of grocery store personnel.

“I think that the pandemic has highlighted the necessity and the importance of grocery store workers that have always been there,” Mark A. Espinosa, president of the UFCW Local 919 in Connecticut, told Healthline. “I don’t think sometimes people realize how important they are just in general.”

The work they do directly impacts us all, agrees Durland Fish, PhD, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in Connecticut.

“They provide an essential service we can’t live without,” Fish told Healthline, “but they can also be a source of infection for customers.”

Which is why, as any shopper has noticed, stores across the country have implemented changes, such as plexiglass at registers, one-way aisles, one shopper permitted per family, and mask requirements.

Espinosa’s union had name tag stickers printed urging customers to keep a 6-foot distance.

Changes like these, Espinosa noted, didn’t happen right away. Much of his membership didn’t feel protected at first.

“Obviously there was hysteria and anxiety,” he recalled. “There was actually a time at the very beginning when the member who wanted to wear a mask was being told by his company, ‘No, you can’t wear a mask.’ But then that policy switched over to ‘Hey, you all have to wear masks’ — so you had that flip-flop.”

There is anxiety among grocery store employees since they can’t work from home like many people can. Workers have left the force, Espinosa said, purely out of fear.

“Ten percent of my membership is not working based on that very issue, whether you want to call it fear, anxiety, concern, whatever adjective,” he said.

Last month, the UFCW and several supermarket chains called on federal and state governments to designate associates at grocery stores as “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel,” which would allow for more benefits and protections.

“This critical status would help ensure our state’s essential grocery workers have priority access to testing, emergency childcare, and other protections to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy,” officials said in a statement. “For the sake of workers, their families, and our nation’s food supply, this action will provide grocery workers with the vital protections they deserve.”

Ananth Iyer, PhD, MS, a professor of operations management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in Indiana, said efforts to protect workers may have positive ripple effects.

“Beyond it being the right thing to do, customers would prefer shopping at retailers who, by protecting their employees, also protect customers,” Iyer told Healthline. “It also may well be a more profitable decision as it decreases capacity planning (in terms of variable staffing due to employees getting ill), improves productivity (a healthy employee is more productive), improves retention (employees treated well, tend to stay), etc.”

He added that if retailers have the right staff, store shelves will be re-stocked and the same employees can also deliver to curbside customers when that service is requested, “thus keeping everyone served.”

Iyer does not see the illness of grocery workers impacting the day-to-day stocking of those shelves.

“The worry is upstream — meatpacking plants, produce pickers in the field and their health,” he explained. “We have only seen meatpacking plant closures due to the low level of automation in the plants. That is a source of worry. But any processed foods or canned products that are produced in automated facilities will be available, and there is a lot of inventory (80 to 120 days of finished goods from past studies) across the grocery supply chain.”

Iyer’s perspective is that we will have food available, he added, but shoppers may need to adjust food preferences while specific item supplies recover.

Laura Strange, a spokesperson for the National Grocers Association, a trade organization representing independent supermarket operators, said that the pandemic has strained the workforce in many members’ stores.

“[Because of] this high, extraordinary demand that they are seeing in stores, they do need to have extra added employees,” she told Healthline. “We were hearing stories where they were working extra hours to make sure shelves were stocked. We heard stories of the CEOs coming in and stocking shelves. Now at this point though the extra hours aren’t sustainable so bringing in extra workforce has been a focus for many of our members.”

“It is so important that people remember that we are all in this together,” said Strange.

She stressed the importance of practicing good personal hygiene and staying at home if you are feeling ill.

“You don’t want to expose anybody else, particularly people who are there doing their jobs, and then who are working so hard and tirelessly to feed Americans, feed their communities,” she said.

Espinosa shared that the majority of union members are not frustrated with their company but rather customers, many of whom do not follow the guidelines.

“The biggest frustration right now overwhelmingly is their frustration with the customer,” he explained. “Follow the mandates. The fact that there should not be more than one person per family shopping. The fact that they should be following the direction of the aisles. The fact that they should respect the 6-foot rules. The fact that they shouldn’t be in an employee’s face. That’s the frustration that the members are telling us over and over again.”

Some customers refuse to wear masks even when they’re required.

“The members are just not comfortable with the customer who, right now with a decree that says you have to walk in with a mask, you’ve got those that just object to authority,” Espinosa said. “So you’ve got that problem.”

While masks, plexiglass, and hand sanitizing are effective ways to protect people, Fish would like to see even more methods to protect workers from the “obvious problem” of getting sick.

“I don’t hear other people talking about it, but handling money I think is risky,” Fish said. “We know that it survives on certain surfaces for hours at least. If somebody’s infected, and they hand the cashier money, they get change. There’s a rapid turnover in the money in the drawer.”

Fish would also like to see more plexiglass at deli counters and stressed the importance of masks, especially in areas of the country where infection rates are high.

“Maybe they should require everyone who comes into the store to wear a mask — to have a mask or they don’t get in,” he suggested.

It’s also a good idea for everyone to have a new mantra: shop and check out fast.

“I don’t even check prices,” Fish said. “Get in and out as fast as you can.”