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Grocery stores a lifeline but also a place of anxiety, especially for workers

Supermarkets add protections, but employees worry about risk of exposure

Caution tape rested atop stacked tables at a Whole Foods in Newton.
Caution tape rested atop stacked tables at a Whole Foods in Newton.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As the Hyde Park Stop & Shop came to life on a recent morning, Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” played cheerily over the PA system as workers stocked shelves and took orders at the deli. Cart wheels clacked and cooler doors thumped. Aside from the ransacked toilet paper aisle and a few empty display cases where the potato salad and pork roasts should have been, it almost could have been a regular morning.

But of course it wasn’t. A number of customers and workers wore gloves and face masks. Shoppers avoided eye contact and steered their carts in wide arcs around each other, changing course if they saw someone in the aisle ahead of them. In the checkout line, clear pieces of plexiglass separated the cashiers from the customers.

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One clerk, concerned the plastic barriers didn’t extend far enough, told her manager she was going out to her car to get a mask. “I’m not taking any chances,” she said.

Outside, the mood was lighter. A woman heading out warned a man walking in that there still wasn’t any toilet paper. But he wasn’t worried.

“I’ve never run out of toilet paper, even in an emergency,” he said, laughing. “I’ve run out of milk and bread, but never toilet paper.”

As nonessential businesses shut down and people have been instructed to keep their distance from one another to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, the supermarket remains a lifeline, one of the few places where people can not only buy food, but also see one another and even share a lighthearted moment, albeit from a safe distance.

Grocery stores are also places of great distress, especially for those who work there, many of them people of color making close to minimum wage who suddenly find themselves working six or seven days a week on the front lines of a public health crisis. Customers are flocking in, panic-buying toilet paper and dried beans and hand sanitizer, and creating checkout lines stretching from the front of the store to the back. Many grocery stores are giving out temporary raises, but a few extra dollars doesn’t change the workers’ fear that they’re putting themselves in harm’s way every time they report to work.

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A grocery employee returned shopping carts to the South Bay Stop & Shop in Dorchester.
A grocery employee returned shopping carts to the South Bay Stop & Shop in Dorchester. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Nationwide, a handful of workers at grocery stores in other states, including Whole Foods in New York, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to news reports. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1445, which represents more than 8,000 Stop & Shop and bfresh workers in Massachusetts, said none of its members had tested positive.

Workers know they’re lucky to have jobs at a time when millions of others have lost theirs, and companies are making strides to protect their employees, including providing gloves, marking off 6-foot intervals in checkout lines, erecting sneeze-guard barriers at registers, and deep-cleaning stores. Many workers aren’t being given face masks but are allowed to bring in their own, though some say they are discouraged from wearing them so customers won’t think they’re sick. Some stores are giving workers frequent breaks to wash their hands and banning reusable bags, or requiring customers using them to bag their own groceries. A few are limiting the number of shoppers allowed inside at any given time.

Still, anxieties are running high.

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Cynthia Smith’s 59-year-old mother, who has worked at a Shaw’s on the North Shore for three decades as a part-time cashier, bagger, and customer assistant, is worried about working without a mask or gloves, Smith said. The stores are crowded, and every item that slides across the belt has been touched by multiple hands, not to mention the cash and coupons handed to cashiers, said Smith, whose mother, like other workers, did not want to be identified out of fear of losing her job.

Amid the growing anxieties, there have been some small steps taken to boost morale. Last week, Smith said, management told workers "as a thank you for your service you guys can wear jeans for the next few weeks.”

Smith is more concerned about whether her mother can wear a mask. In an e-mail to Smith, who contacted Shaw’s on behalf of her mother, the company wrote: “We are following all of the CDC guidelines, and the CDC does not recommend that people who are healthy wear face masks or gloves at this time.”

Smith and her siblings are terrified their mother is going to get sick, and sorry she can no longer help care for her five grandchildren, in case she’s been exposed to the virus. “She’s heartbroken she’s not able to see them every day,” Smith said.

In the back of a Roche Bros. store in a Boston suburb, the walk-in cooler and freezer are packed with crates of groceries ready to be delivered to customers who ordered online, as well as by a steady stream of “pickers” bringing in completed online orders from the front of the store. With demand soaring, there’s even less room than usual for people to get by each other, even as they try to stay 6 feet apart, according to an employee. “It’s like a ballet,” he said.

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It’s not all grim. There is laughter as people try to maneuver around each other, he said. And people are proud to be contributing to society in such a meaningful way.

But more than anything, workers are worried about exposure to COVID-19, the worker said — from other people as well as from all the products they handle and surfaces they touch. The gloves provided to workers in the deli and butcher shops are so thin that the employee went out to CVS and bought a box of blue surgical gloves to pass around.

The flood of suddenly available high school workers with no classes to attend has helped deal with the demand, the employee said. But he worries about their health. Same with older workers, including a 70-something man who cleans the floors and bathrooms, and the many developmentally disabled employees.

“I do not think they have any idea what’s going on,” he said.

Roche Bros. has instituted several measures similar to what other stores have done, a spokesman said, along with suspending lottery sales and bottle returns. The store also is encouraging frequent hand-washing over wearing gloves and allowing older and at-risk workers to stay home if they choose. “We are doing our best to institute guidelines as fast as we can,” the company said.

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Fernando Lemus, acting president of UFCW Local 1445, which represents Stop & Shop workers, acknowledged that the company has been steadily improving protections for workers. But the chain is still not doing enough to limit the number of customers crowding into stores, he said.

On Tuesday, the union sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker asking him to put reasonable limits on customers, install security guards, and suspend local ordinances banning single-use plastic bags to keep out reusable bags, which could be contaminated by customers.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Public Health ordered grocery stores and pharmacies to mark “social distancing lines” 6 feet from checkout counters, instruct employees who are ill to stay home, limit exposure for high-risk employees, ban reusable bags, and allow single-use plastic bags.

In addition to implementing many new protocols being followed by other stores, Whole Foods said it is providing additional shopping hours for employees to buy groceries when customers are not in the store.

But a department manager at a Whole Foods in Boston said some workers assume they’ve already been exposed and therefore aren’t taking enough precautions to protect themselves, according to his wife, Michelle Morais. Why isn’t there more being done to keep workers safe? she asked.

"This is just Americans flooding grocery stores with no limits or inconveniences at all," she said. "No grocery store worker signed up to be a food hero and put their lives at risk to stock the shelves with potato chips and candy bars."

On Friday afternoon at the Star Market on River Street in Dorchester, shoppers were out in force — searching for items on picked-over shelves and stopping to squeeze sanitizer on their hands.

“This is the last place we should be,” said a Mattapan resident who was there with her sister and trying to keep her distance from other shoppers. “But I worry about things shutting down. We have to eat.”

A clerk wearing a blue mask and gloves said the store had been insanely busy: “I’m scared, and I worry," she said. "I don’t want to get sick, but I have to work, too. I can’t just not work. And somebody’s got to do this job.”

Steve Wilmsen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.