Southwest grocery workers take on risk

Geoffrey Zieska stands at the deli counter of the Linden Hills Co-op. The co-op is paying workers $2 an hour in hazard pay during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

When Trace Brandt returns home from his job at the Linden Hills Co-op, he removes his shoes before walking in the door. Then he strips off his clothes, tosses them in the laundry and takes a shower. Brandt lives with both his parents and two of his siblings, and he wants to protect them from the coronavirus.

“I am the only one in my family who’s going out in public right now,” he said. “I’m the most likely to get exposed, and if I do, I don’t want it to spread to my family members.”

Brandt describes himself as an anxious person, and in mid-March, with shoppers coming to the co-op in droves and confusing news proliferating online, he said there were days he struggled to show up for work.

The precautions taken by his store — such as handing out disposable gloves and capping the number of simultaneous shoppers at 35 — have relieved his anxiety somewhat. But while customers are no longer swarming the aisles, working at the co-op has gotten only stranger.

Brandt’s shifts are now spent repeatedly spraying carts, baskets, cash registers and phones with a bleach solution spray. He’s tasked with enforcing rules requiring 6 feet of distance between shoppers. And most of his coworkers and customers are now covering their faces with masks.

“It’s crazy how fast people are able to adapt,” Brandt said, adding that he’s proud his retail job has taken on a sudden importance. “When I wake up and feel healthy, then I’m going to continue to take the steps to stay that way and keep others healthy, too.”

Under the governor’s stay-at-home order, grocery staff have become some of the country’s highest-profile essential workers. Out of a sense of duty or the need for a paycheck, they’re shouldering unknowable risks as their employers scramble to implement safety standards amid quickly shifting information.

“It’s a spotlight I don’t think any retail grocery worker asked for, but they certainly have stepped up to the plate,” said Matt Utecht, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local Union 663, which represents most Southwest grocery workers. “Who would have thought when they filled out that application at Kowalski’s or Cub or Lunds & Byerlys that they would end up on the front line of a global pandemic and be an essential link to keep society running?”

In mid- to late March, with local residents stockpiling items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, canned goods, beans and rice, Southwest grocery stores saw sales double or triple.

In the weeks since, stores have been getting creative as they seek to answer a fundamental question: How do you balance the need to keep employees and shoppers safe with the community’s need for access to groceries?

Solutions have included new signage (“2 carts = 6 feet apart”), physical changes (plexiglass dividers between cash registers, foot-operated door openers) and altered schedules (reserving the first hour for vulnerable populations, closing early for extra cleaning). Kowalski’s employees are required to wear plastic gloves and change them when they get soiled, dirty or torn, but cloth face masks are not being mandated because the store hasn’t been able to secure enough masks for all workers to wear.

Linden Hills Co-op cashier Rebekah Kay wears a cloth mask made by her mother, who also made masks for about 10 of Kay’s coworkers. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Josh Resnik, the CEO of the company that owns the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops, said the stores would be debuting a curbside pickup service on April 16, with 2,500 items available at launch. “Something like that would usually take six months to get all the details right,” he said. “We fast-tracked it to three weeks.”

Today, customers at grocery stores are shopping fewer times each week, but they’re spending more each trip and business is still booming. While the customer count at Kowalski’s is down about 35%, chief operating officer Mike Oase said, hiring is up 10%.

Local grocery stores have been sharing some of their increased revenue with employees.

At Cub Foods, Kowalski’s and the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops, workers are getting a $2 per hour wage bump during the pandemic — an increase from $16.70 to $18.70 for an average floor worker at the co-ops. At Lunds & Byerlys, full-time employees have gotten a $500 bonus, with part-timers getting $200, whether or not they’ve chosen to work during the pandemic. And employees of Cub, Kowalski’s, Lunds and the co-ops are now getting paid double for overtime, instead of time-and-a-half.

Workers say they appreciate the extra money and the fact that they still have jobs when hundreds of thousands have been laid off across the state. But many are worried about what will happen to them if they become sick and some say they deserve more compensation for the risks they’re taking. (Employees at Cub, Aldi and Lunds are prohibited from talking to the media.)

The UFCW Local 663 lobbied unsuccessfully to include grocery workers in a bill making it easier for front-line responders to get workers’ compensation. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz on April 7, creates the presumption that a COVID-19 infection is work-related for doctors, firefighters, police, child care providers and others.

Mar Losoya, a worker at the Wedge, said grocery workers’ jobs have become much more difficult and dangerous since the start of the pandemic.

“Hazard pay started in March, after the first big surge of the pandemic, and we didn’t see any back pay,” Losoya said. “We are on the front line and we’re not seeing a lot of fair compensation for that at the moment.”

Executives at Kowalski’s and the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops said they are currently reevaluating their policies during the pandemic to better serve workers. Resnik said the co-op will be extending hazard pay a few days beyond the end of the stay-at-home order. Responding to employee feedback, the co-op is also making a change so workers won’t need to dip into negative paid time off if they get sick with COVID-19.

“If an employee gets COVID or has symptoms, they will be paid,” Resnik said.