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'Putting our lives on the line every day': Richmond-area grocery store workers worry about working during the pandemic
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'Putting our lives on the line every day': Richmond-area grocery store workers worry about working during the pandemic

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Gov. Northam touts the arrival of new PPE for Virginia

Amid the sobering news about the coronavirus in recent weeks, Vannessa Wilcox got so overwhelmed during her job at a Kroger store in Short Pump recently that she went outside and started to cry during a break.

Wilcox, 54, a cancer survivor who is diabetic, said the fear of contracting COVID-19 herself drove her to tears. She is not only worried about her own health but her colleagues as well.

“We are pretty much putting our lives on the line every day we work,” Wilcox said. “These people, they aren’t my co-workers — they are my family — and I worry each and every day about every one of them.”

Wilcox is working in a part of the economy that Gov. Ralph Northam has said is an essential business that remains open during the pandemic while other companies, such as theaters and gyms, have been shuttered.

Work continues at Richmond-area grocery stores — work, the employees say, is critical.

Employees are restocking shelves with fresh produce, soups, meats, eggs and milk. Other workers wipe down grocery carts, keypads and door handles with disinfectants while cashiers take money shielded by plexiglass partitions at checkout counters — all efforts to protect employees and customers from a coronavirus infection.

Chains have ramped up other cleaning activities and are taking other measures, such as limiting the traffic flow in aisles to one way, providing personal protective gear for employees and giving bonuses or pay increases to store workers.

Yet local supermarket employees interviewed this week said they’re concerned about continuing to work during the pandemic. Despite those worries, the workers, many in low-wage jobs, said they need to keep working in order to draw a paycheck.

While many employees in other occupations can do work remotely from home, grocery store clerks cannot. Some grocery clerks have opted to stay home because they don’t think the work is worth the risk.

Their concern comes on the backdrop that at least five Richmond-area grocery workers have tested positive for the coronavirus this month.

That includes an employee at the Whole Foods Market store in West Broad Village in western Henrico and a worker at the Publix store at The Shops at Stratford Hills on Forest Hill Avenue in South Richmond, representatives from those chains have confirmed.

Three Kroger stores in Henrico — on Eastridge Road, at Willow Lawn shopping center and on Staples Mill Road — each had an employee who tested positive for the virus, the chain has said.

The number of area store clerks testing positive for the virus could be higher as some retailers, such as Walmart, have declined to confirm cases. “Any updates or confirmations on COVID-19 cases can only come from local health officials. Per the requirement of HIPAA [the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] privacy laws, we do not share personal health information about any associate in order to protect their privacy,” a Walmart spokesman said this month when asked about a possible case at one of its area supercenters.

Publix, Whole Foods and Kroger officials have said extensive cleanings took place in those stores where the employee was diagnosed while ongoing cleaning efforts continue there and at other stores.

“We remain committed to the health and safety of our associates and customers,” said Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic division, which includes the 18 stores in the Richmond region. “Kroger is taking many other additional measures to protect associates, customers and the community, including limiting capacity in stores.”

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Karen Fallin, a bookkeeper and cashier at the Kroger store at 1510 Eastridge Road, near Regency mall, said it’s unnerving that a coworker at her store tested positive for the virus.

“In some ways, it’s very scary. In other ways, it’s a real thing to us now,” the 60-year-old Fallin said. “We know a person that’s had it.”

Fallin recalled a customer who was in her cashier line on Thursday had pulled her mask down and licked her fingers so she could more easily separate the brand new dollar bills she was using to pay for her groceries. Fallin took extra precautions before handling the cash.

“I put on gloves, and she was offended because she felt like I was treating her like she had a disease,” Fallin said. “I explained to her, and I told her I understood it was natural that we do that [to separate bills], but in today’s world we can’t.”

Following the transaction, Fallin went to the bathroom to wash her hands and put on new gloves.

She said she’s thankful she has a job. Still, she noted that some recent hires have already quit because they are scared of contracting the virus.

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The union representing employees at many Kroger stores nationwide and the Kroger CEO issued a joint statement this week calling on federal and state officials to temporarily designate grocery employees as “first responders.”

“Given the significant daily risk these workers face, we are calling on all of our federal and state leaders to take immediate action,” said the joint statement from Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen and Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

“Specifically, we are requesting our nation’s leaders to assign a temporary designation of first responder or emergency personnel status for all grocery workers,” the statement said. “Make no mistake, this designation is absolutely critical as it will ensure these frontline workers have priority access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves.”

Cincinnati-based Kroger, the nation’s largest traditional grocery store retailer, has made the plea for its workers in other states.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents employees at all but two Kroger stores in the Richmond region, echoed that call this week urging Northam to declare grocery store workers, as well as pharmacy and food processing employees, as first responders so they could access COVID-19 testing and treatment as well as get greater access to personal protective equipment.

Whole Foods workers called for a recent “sickout” to demand better conditions, including double pay. A group of independent contractors for the Instacart grocery delivery service walked out this month to force more protections.

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Lisa Harris, a member of the UFCW Local 400 who works at the Kroger store at 9351 Atlee Road in the Rutland Commons shopping center in Hanover County, noted in a recent interview about how concerned she is that other local Kroger store employees have contracted the virus.

“It feels like it’s getting closer,” said Harris, who works in the self check-out lanes at her store.

Kroger has taken steps to protect workers such as providing gloves and setting up the plexiglass sneeze guards, Harris said. Masks from a local charity have been provided to employees, she said.

“I think they’ve done as much as they can to try and protect us, but I still don’t feel safe,” Harris said.

Some employees are staying home because they don’t think the work is worth the risk, she said. But Harris said she doesn’t have that choice.

“I have to get the bills paid,” the 32-year-old Harris said. “I have to keep them paid. That’s why I’m here, otherwise, I’d be self-quarantining as well ... I see about 300 people a day, so the chances are high that I might get this thing, and it’s scary.”

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Atari Gems took a job at a Food Lion in Chesterfield about three weeks ago to supplement her income after a full-time job she was training for to be a caregiver to disabled young adults was put on hold amid the pandemic. Gems also works as a cashier at a nearby Dollar Tree.

When she started at Food Lion, she said the store didn’t have plexiglass shields at the cash registers. Now the shields are there.

Gems said she’s concerned to be working there during the coronavirus outbreak, but echoing comments from other grocery workers that she needs the job to pay the bills.

“I do feel like I’m taking all the necessary precautions,” said Gems, who is 27. “My store managers [at Food Lion] give us gloves throughout our shift ... They are sanitizing, literally, everything. They turned the water fountain off.”

Gems has been navigating the store during the pandemic, alerting customers when she is passing them in the aisle. People are generally abiding by social distancing guidelines but not every customer is wearing a mask, Gems said.

But Cherlyn Stevens, who works for a company that delivers aspirin, allergy medication and vitamins to local Walmart stores, said she’s noticed that a lot of times people are not practicing social distancing. Stevens said that sometimes many members of one family will be in the store at one time to shop and she finds that a little unsettling.

“We go in, and we’re putting on gloves, masks. I’m sanitizing my hands, before I put the gloves on,” Stevens said.

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Wilcox, the deli clerk and cashier at the Kroger store off West Broad Street across from the Short Pump Town Center, said she’s noticed some customers keep coming into the store three-to-five times in a week. She wished they would instead limit their trips.

Wilcox said she’s happy that Kroger is taking steps to prevent the spread of the disease. For instance, shopping carts at the front of the store are cleaned off as are the checkout lines.

Still, she said, there are not enough masks for employees at her store.

“Kroger is doing their due diligence and trying to keep everything as clean as possible,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox urged customers to practice social distancing around grocery store workers during the pandemic.

“Just remember that we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that they have everything in the store that they need,” Wilcox said. “We are trying to stock the store as fast as we can. We are doing the best we can, and we’re scared, and we’re still there to make sure that they have everything that they need for their families, and to please give us the space that we need and please stay home when they can.”

Wilcox added “I pray every night that this ends really soon.”

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