Grocery Workers Say Inconsiderate Shoppers Are Endangering Them In The Pandemic

Many people still aren't wearing masks or observing social distancing protocol at the supermarket. Workers are afraid it will cost them their lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a lot of guidance to the public about how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. But as far as Aaron Squeo can tell, a lot of grocery shoppers haven’t gotten the memos.

Squeo works in the meat department of a Kroger supermarket in Michigan. He knows of several grocery workers who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and one in his area who died. He worries that the behavior of some shoppers is putting people in unnecessary danger.

“When I’m stocking the meat counter and people are crowding around me … that’s not social distancing,” Squeo said Monday on a call with reporters arranged by his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 900,000 grocery store employees.

Several other grocery workers on the call shared similar experiences in recent weeks as the number of coronavirus cases has shot up. As HuffPost reported Sunday, the UFCW estimates that around 30 of its members have died so far during the pandemic. The Washington Post reported that at least 41 grocery workers in the U.S. have passed away and thousands more have been infected.

With best practices changing and the rules varying from one locality to the next, the UFCW is asking that shoppers abide by a few basic rules to keep everyone inside busy stores safe during the pandemic. They even launched a ”Shop Smart″ campaign in hopes people will use common sense:

Always wear a mask. The coronavirus can spread from one person to the next through coughing and sneezing. The CDC now recommends that people wear face coverings when out in public, and some localities are starting to legally require it in stores. Even so, many shoppers still aren’t wearing them, workers said.

“Please, for the sake of all our safety, wear a mask or a face covering when you go shopping in a grocery store,” said Janifer Suber, who works at a Vons store in California.

Don’t leave that used mask in your shopping cart. It’s bad form to leave trash in a shopping cart in good times; it’s dangerous to do it during a pandemic. Workers reported having to constantly clean up used gloves, masks and sanitizing wipes left behind in carts, baskets and parking lots.

“We provide garbage cans. Take the extra time to walk over three or four feet,” said Gregg Finch, who works at a Stop & Shop in New York.

“I see a lot of gloves in the parking lot. I see them in shopping carts,” said Dusty Gearhard, who works at a Homeland Stores in Oklahoma. “You’re part of a larger group that we have to deal with every day. Now more than ever we need to work together to get through this.”

A worker at a Stop & Shop store in New York.
A worker at a Stop & Shop store in New York.
Morse Collection/Gado via Getty Images

Don’t bring the whole clan shopping. The workers said they often see unnecessarily large groups shopping together at their stores, which makes it much harder to observe the six-feet distance between people recommended by the CDC.

“Don’t bring the whole family out,” Squeo said.

Don’t bother workers with questions about out-of-stock items. Shoppers are pressing workers about items they can’t find on the shelves, like toilet paper. The reality is workers probably don’t know when that stuff will be back in stock, and the conversations put them in unnecessarily close contact with shoppers. In a survey done by the UFCW, nearly a third of workers said customers had treated them either somewhat or very poorly during the pandemic.

“We are constantly asked what specific items will be in stock. We want them to know we are all doing the best job we can,” Suber said. “We simply don’t know when items will come in.”

Don’t go looking for that gallon of milk that never expires. Gearhard said it frustrates him to see shoppers rooting around piles of frozen meat or touching all the milk jugs as they look for one with a better expiration date. It leaves far more germs behind than necessary.

“We’re asking customers ... to think about how they shop and how it impacts their health and ours,” he said.

Create a list and minimize trips. Suber said she has seen the same people coming back to the store multiple times on the same day because they forgot certain items.

“We really need customers to change how they shop,” she said.

Give workers their 6 feet of space. In the UFCW’s survey, 85% of respondents said shoppers were not observing the CDC recommendations when inside stores.

“We’re being unnecessarily exposed,” Gearhard said. “We’d appreciate it if everyone could keep their social distance.”

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