Americans’ obsession with staying home hurts vulnerable workers

Amazon Fresh grocery delivery
We cannot grocery deliver our way out of a pandemic.

  • Public messaging in the pandemic has said “we” need to stay at home. 
  • This ignores people who must report to a work site.
  • The elevation of making “good” individual choices in the pandemic needs to end. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

I was watching Hulu when I first saw the ad. 

“COVID-19 can spread rapidly,” an upbeat, urgent voice said. “Or we can make choices that help us stay home and stop the spread.” 

The advertisement went on to encourage people to have medication delivered via the startup Capsule, to “help keep our communities safe.” It was an ad targeted to people like me, who had spent the pandemic working from home and binging hours of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The message was clear: the right thing to do to stop the spread of COVID-19 was to stay inside. But, what about the workers who have to travel to a pharmacy, picking up the medicine, and making the deliveries? If staying home means someone else takes on the same risk, is that really safer? Or, does it just shift the risk to someone else, typically to low-income workers

This isn’t a problem that is specific to Capsule. The assumption that “we” can make the choice to stay at home has become inescapable over the past year. It has shaped how the US has responded to the pandemic in ways that ignore, dehumanize, and hurt workers who are already among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. And it needs to stop. 

Food delivery isn’t going to stop the pandemic

Whole Foods
The people most likely to catch COVID-19 in a grocery store are those who spend the most hours in the stores – in other words, workers.

In January, Vox ran an article with the headline: “Still going to the grocery store? With new virus variants spreading, it’s probably time to stop.”

The article is well reported. But the headline ignores the people who are most likely to catch COVID-19 in a grocery store: the workers who cannot decide to simply stop showing up. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said that at least 138 of its members working in grocery stores have died, and more than 31,200 grocery workers have been infected or exposed to COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, the risk of a customers catching COVID-19 at grocery stores is so low that Dr. Marietta Vazquez, an infectious disease expert at Yale Pediatric Children’s Hospital, told me delivery versus in-person shopping is simply a personal choice, rather than a safety consideration. This is largely because customers spend far less time inside stores than workers, and therefore have less potential for virus exposure.

And ordering delivery does not substantially reduce the number of people in a store, because most services employ personal shoppers that are separate from store workers. Delivery can protect higher-risk individuals, but it isn’t the silver bullet to stop the spread of COVID-19 in a community.

Many workers understand they cannot simply “stay home,” and have asked for protections throughout the pandemic.

Grocery store employees began to ask for masks to wear at work more than a year ago. Many requests were originally denied, with employers citing the CDC’s guidance against masks at the time. In February, Ben Bonnema said he was fired from his job at Trader Joe’s after asking the company to improve air filtration and deploy other solutions to protect workers. As of this week, only 13 states are providing vaccine access for grocery store workers, according to UFCW.

“Every supermarket in the country must increase worker protections, enforce mask wearing in stores, and commit to disclosing when frontline workers have been infected and died,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a recent statement. 

The spread of COVID-19 is not materially impacted by whether people visit grocery stores themselves or pay Instacart shoppers to do so on their behalf. The bigger problem is the lack of protections for the workers themselves. 

Most personal choices aren’t actually solutions

masks airport
Not everyone has the same set of options when it comes to personal choices.

Dr. Vazquez told me that stay-at-home orders assumed that avoiding contact with others was a possibility for entire populations. But, that is not the reality for many people.

“Similarly, recommendations on how to quarantine at home assume individuals live in homes large enough for the symptomatic individual to sleep in a separate bedroom for example and be brought food while staying in the bedroom,” Vazquez said in an email.

“I think that these guidelines, although well intended, leave those with limited financial access to resources behind,” Vazquez continued. 

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina known for her reliably prescient pandemic coverage, analyzed similar issues in a recent article.

“Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them,” Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic. “By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.” 

Tufekci writes that ineffective “hygiene theater” goes hand-in-hand with a wider theater of personal responsibility. Public messaging reinforces the belief that if an individual does everything “right” – in some cases, having others to take on the risks they avoid – it can halt the spread of COVID-19. 

“There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. . . . No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home – even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely – and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors,” Tufekci writes. 

Everyone should reduce risk in whatever way they can. But the emphasis on personal choices ignores people who do not have many options when it comes to quarantining. That makes it more difficult to advocate for solutions that can best prevent the spread of COVID-19, whether that be improving ventilation or better sick leave policies. 

As vaccines become more widely available and governments roll back precautions, we cannot allow the theater of personal responsibility to dominate the national discourse. Instead, we need to demand protections for all people – those who can afford to stay home, as well as the people who are actually delivering their meals.  

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Trader Joe’s rehired the employee who was fired after asking for increased COVID-19 protections

Trader Joe's.
Trader Joe’s.

  • Trader Joe’s rehired an employee who said he was fired after asking for more COVID-19 protections.
  • Bonnema’s letter to the CEO was shared widely on Twitter and inspired a boycott.
  • Retail workers tasked with enforcing mask rules have risked dangerous confrontations in the last year.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Trader Joe’s on Wednesday rehired an employee who said he was fired in February after requesting increased COVID-19 safety protections in a letter to the company’s CEO, The Daily Beast first reported.

Ben Bonnema’s account of his firing from a New York City Trader Joe’s store led to calls for a boycott of the grocer’s more than 500 US locations. Scientists cited in Bonnema’s letter also came to his defense as news of his firing made waves online. 

“It’s been a stressful week since then, but it makes sense that they offered to reinstate because it was a completely unlawful termination,” Bonnema told The Daily Beast Thursday following his reinstatement.

Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

In his letter to CEO Dan Bane, Bonnema outlined several changes he wanted the store to enact to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect workers, including increased ventilation and limited store capacity based on air quality. At the time, Trader Joe’s told Insider Bonnema’s account of his firing was “misinformation.”

“Store leadership terminated this Crew Member’s employment because of the disrespect he showed toward our customers,” Trader Joe’s said.

Bonnema shared his letter on Twitter in February, and it quickly went viral.

 “We put our lives on the line every day by showing up to work,” Bonnema wrote. “Please, show up for us by adopting these policies.” He said he was fired for the letter, and shared his termination letter on Twitter. The letter he posted said he did not share the grocery chain’s core values.

“While we are pleased that Mr. Bonnema has been rightfully reinstated, we will continue to take all necessary legal action to repair his reputation that has been disparaged by the company through false accusations that my client engaged in misconduct,” Bonnema’s lawyer Ben Dictor told The Daily Beast. “We are also committed to ensuring that no essential workers of Trader Joe’s face any further retaliation for raising concerns about their working conditions.”

Now, Bonnema says that he is waiting to hear from OSHA about his concerns, and plans to be back at work on Monday.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, US retail workers have been tasked with the job of enforcing piecemeal mask policies. Employees were left in the difficult position of not having official mask policies, or not being allowed to ask customers to mask up.

Some customers have refused to wear masks for political reasons, and some encounters have turned violent, with workers shot or assaulted for asking customers to wear masks. Of stores that did not let employees enforce mask rules, spokespeople cited concerns for employee safety. Despite being hailed as heroes, protections for retail employees remain weak in the US, and activists are urging governments and companies to do more.

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A Trader Joe’s employee says he was fired after he asked the company’s CEO to enhance its COVID-19 protections

Trader Joe's
Trader Joe’s

  • A New York man said he was fired by Trader Joe’s after he requested the company make changes to better protect workers.
  • Ben Bonnema said on Twitter he was fired after sending a letter to the company’s CEO.
  • In the termination letter he shared, the company said he did not share the grocery chain’s “core Values.”
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A New York City man said he was fired by Trader Joe’s after he sent a letter to the company’s CEO requesting the company make several changes he said would more thoroughly protect the grocery chain’s employees from COVID-19. 

In a tweet Friday evening, Ben Bonnema said he was fired from the Trader Joe’s location on New York City’s Upper West Side after he sent a letter to Dan Bane, the CEO of Trader Joe’s. Bonnema outlined changes he believed the company should implement to further protect staff from the airborne spread of the novel coronavirus.

Bonnema did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment Saturday. Trader Joe’s also did not immediately comment about Bonnema’s employment or the company’s response to his letter. 

In the letter, which Bonnema shared on Twitter, Bonnema asked for five changes in his Trader Joe’s store, including enhancements to the store’s HVAC system, an occupancy limit based on the level of CO2 in the store, more stringent face mask requirements for customers, and a three-strike policy for customers who refuse to follow COVID-19 protocol. 

“Unfortunately, ASHRAE and the CDC and OSHA have downplayed the dangers of aerosols since the pandemic’s origins, so saying that Trader Joe’s ‘exceeds their standards’ isn’t good enough,” he wrote in the letter.

 

“We should be following the guidelines of scientists who study respiratory transmission,” he added, including a link to a February 17 article from The New York Times that reported a group of 13 scientists had called on the Biden administration to release rules to limit airborne transmissions of the virus in places like meat-packing plants and prisons.

“We put our lives on the line every day by showing up to work,” he wrote. “Please, show up for us by adopting these policies.” 

But Bonnema said Trader Joe’s terminated him after sending the letter on behalf of his coworkers and shared his termination letter, dated Friday, February 26, on Twitter.

“In a recent email, you suggest adopting a ‘3 strike’ policy against customers and a policy enforcing the same accommodation for every customer with a medical condition that precludes them from wearing a mask,” the termination letter read.

In Bonnema’s letter to the CEO, he had called for the company to enforce mask usage – even in the cases of medical exemptions, which are often illegitimate, writing that Trader Joe’s employees can accommodate such people by shopping on their behalf.

“These suggestions are not in line with our core Values,” the termination letter continued. “In addition, you state that Trader Joe’s is not ‘showing up for us’ without adopting your policies.”

“It is clear that you do not understand our Values. As a result, we are no longer comfortable having you work for Trader Joe’s,” the letter concluded.

A group of Trader Joe’s workers promoting a workers union for the grocery store voiced support for Bonnema on Twitter. “We’ve spoken with @BenBonnema and are extending unequivocal support and solidarity. We will not be providing comment outside what Ben decides to share, but are supporting him in every way possible in this fight,” Crew for a Trader Joe’s Union said. 

Retail and grocery workers were hailed as heroes early in the pandemic, as they worked to keep essential businesses operational during the lockdown. But protections for retail employees remain weak in the United States, and many workers and labor activists have called for companies to do more.

Bonnema’s claims would not be the first time employees of Trader Joe’s complained about their safety during the pandemic. In November 2020, employees of the grocery chain told Gothamist they were in a “state of terror” and claimed the company was not properly protecting workers from the spread of the disease.

Employees of several New York City Trader Joe’s locations, including the one on the Upper West Side, told Gothamist last year they were fearful of punishment from management should they voice concerns.

In a press release earlier in February, Trader Joe’s outlined how it said it was protecting employees and customers from COVID-19, including requiring face masks for most customers (and providing accommodations for individuals who were medically unable), providing masks and gloves to staff, health screenings for employees, and increased cleaning at its stores. 

“The safety and wellbeing of our Crew Members and customers is, and always will be, top of mind,” a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s told Gothamist last year.  

Read the original article on Business Insider

How the fight over ‘hero pay’ for grocery workers reveals chain stores’ massive corporate greed

Grocery store worker, low-wage
A grocery store worker inspecting meats while wearing PPE during the pandemic.

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and a frequent cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • In this week’s column, Constant talks about the ‘hero pay’ raises some stores like Trader Joe’s and Kroger adopted last year.
  • Kroger later blamed this raise for store closures, despite paying out billions in profits to the company’s shareholders.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Last March, when lockdowns began, grocery store workers and delivery drivers were rightfully hailed as heroes of the pandemic. Even as restaurants and bars closed to stop the spread of coronavirus, grocery store employees risked their health, and the health of their families, to keep Americans fed while white-collar workers transitioned to home offices. From the very beginning of the pandemic they put on homemade masks to stock shelves, ring up customers, and keep the supply chain working when everything else shut down.

At the beginning of the pandemic, public respect for grocery workers was overwhelming and unanimous

Rodney McMullen, the chairman and CEO of the Kroger chain of grocery stores, was effusive in his praise: “Our associates have displayed the true actions of a hero,” McMullen wrote in a press release, acknowledging his staff for “working tirelessly on the frontlines to ensure everyone has access to affordable, fresh food and essentials during this national emergency.”

McMullen backed up his words of support for the heroes on his staff with a bold policy: Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the nation and the second-largest retailer after Walmart, announced on March 31, 2020 that it would “provide all hourly frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center associates with a Hero Bonus – a $2 premium above their standard base rate of pay, applied to hours worked March 29 through April 18.”

Kroger’s Hero Bonus pay program eventually ended in May, two months into the pandemic. But the pandemic has continued unabated, and grocery store workers continue to live with a very high risk of COVID-19 infection. A Kroger-owned Fred Meyer grocery store in Seattle had an outbreak infecting 10 workers in December, for example. 

Although the risks for grocery workers are still very high, the hero talk has all but disappeared

And so has the hero pay: Kroger employees from around the country report on Indeed that baggers at Kroger grocery stores earn an average of $9.28 an hour, while cashiers report pay of $10.53. (Bear in mind, too, that those average wages are likely inflated due to cities like Seattle and New York City that embraced a $15 minimum wage .) According to nearly 37,000 employee reports, Indeed said, “Few people think they are paid fairly at Kroger Stores.” In exchange for putting their health on the line for a full year in thankless public-facing jobs, many Kroger workers earn wages that don’t even lift them above the poverty line. 

This year, leaders began to demand that grocery stores pay their employees extra during the pandemic. Lawmakers in Long Beach and in Seattle, among other cities, passed a $4-per-hour hazard pay bonus for workers at large grocery store chains. 

The laws brought some much-needed attention back to workers who have disappeared from the public consciousness, and that pressure seems to have worked: After Seattle’s City Council approved hazard pay, grocery chain Trader Joe’s responded by temporarily raising worker pay around the country by $4 an hour. 

This is great economic news for everyone: not only are workers being rewarded for performing tasks that white-collar workers would never do, but those workers also have extra money in their pockets, which they’ll spend in their communities – including at grocery stores. 

How Kroger responded very differently than Trader Joe’s

In both Long Beach and in Seattle, Kroger issued press releases announcing that they were closing two stores, blaming the hazard pay for the closures. 

I suspect the situation in Long Beach is similar, but since I live in Seattle I can better speak to the closures here. The two QFC grocery stores that Kroger is closing in Seattle are small, underperforming stores in upscale, walkable neighborhoods that have other – most would argue superior – grocery options nearby. (The other thirteen QFC stores owned by Kroger in Seattle will remain open, as well as Kroger’s three Fred Meyer stores inside Seattle city limits, where the hazard pay applies.) 

And, at least one of the targeted Seattle QFC locations had already been slated for redevelopment in the near future. In other words, it seems likely that Kroger could be exploiting stores that were failing before the pandemic to make the point they really want made – if city councils elsewhere try to raise wages, Kroger will continue to hold their employees’ lives and livelihoods hostage in order to keep wages low and profits sky-high. 

Giant corporations love to use splashy intimidation tactics like this to create fear-inducing headlines which help to peel support away from worker protections. But make no mistake: Even though Kroger’s press releases suggested that the grocery business relies on “razor-thin” profit margins, Kroger has been making a ridiculous amount of money during the pandemic. 

Because people have been working and eating at home over the last year, Kroger has boasted of record-breaking profits. For the first two quarters of 2020, reports the Detroit Free Press, its net earnings nearly doubled “to more than $2.031 billion compared with $1.069 billion in the same period of 2019.” 

In the third quarter of 2020, Kroger announced operating profits of $792 million

And with grocery spending in Washington state up by double-digit percentages since the beginning of the pandemic, it seems highly unlikely that hazard pay is the tipping-point expense that forced Kroger to pull the plug on these stores.

And while Kroger isn’t willing to pay the “heroes” its leadership loves to praise in press releases, the corporation happily opened their wallets for shareholders this year, paying out a dividend of 18 cents per share

Last year, Kroger said in a press release, “We have returned approximately $6.4 billion to shareholders via dividends and repurchased shares [also known as stock buybacks] since the beginning of fiscal 2017.” As thanks for returning obscene profits to shareholders, CEO W. Rodney McMullen received $21 million in total compensation in 2019, an increase of 76% over the year before and 798 times the median annual Kroger employee salary that same year. 

McMullen wasn’t the only one who received hero pay a year before the pandemic, ExecPay noted: “In 2019, six Kroger executives received on average a compensation package of $8.7 million, a 46% increase compared to previous year.” 

While Kroger can find plenty of money for its CEO, its executive team, and its shareholders, the corporation picks up its toys and heads home when city lawmakers ask it to increase pay for the frontline workers who have been putting their lives on the line so that Kroger can boast about their unprecedented profits. 

The math is clear: Kroger’s coffers are more than full enough to reward its employees for their essential work in the midst of a global pandemic. McMullen and his executive team apparently prefer to keep that “hero pay” for themselves.

Read the original article on Business Insider