Grocery store workers brave the front lines during COVID-19 crisis

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Shaina McKinnon, 22, leaves her house in Lansing every day to stock the produce department at Meijer. A few months ago, she would have told you that she’s only working at the grocery store to pay the bills while she juggles low-paying internships and grad school. 

However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she is now considered an essential employee under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay home order — a worker who is “necessary to sustain and protect life.”

“I’m putting myself at risk by being out in public around a lot of people for 40 hours a week,” McKinnon said. “But I also can’t afford to not be working.”

First responders and health care workers quickly come to mind when considering those who are braving the front lines fighting COVID-19. But over 2.7 million grocery store employees across the country also risk their lives at work everyday.

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Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported that five grocery store workers in Michigan have died from COVID-19. A Kroger spokesperson told the Free Press that four employees from the metro Detroit area had died. Meijer confirmed one employee had died, but did not disclose the location. 

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of four Kroger family members who worked at our stores in Northville (425 North Center), Troy (3125 John R), Grosse Pointe (16919 Kercheval), and Livonia (30935 5 Mile Rd), Michigan. We are mourning along with their families during this extraordinarily difficult time,” Ken DeLuca, president of the Kroger Co. of Michigan said. 

On Tuesday, Kroger and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) called on federal and state governments to designate grocery store workers as “extended first responders.”

The union says that this designation will ensure retail workers have priority access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves.  

“This urgent call for temporary first responder or emergency personnel status is not just about protecting grocery store workers; it is also about protecting the customers they serve and our nation’s food supply in general,” Kroger Chair and CEO Rodney McMullen and UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a joint statement.

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Essential workers from the service sector are a big part of Michigan’s workforce, and they are risking their lives everyday to go to work. 

University of Michigan economists released a scheduled report last week through the Research Seminar of Quantitative Economics (RSQE) estimating that 40 to 50% of Michigan’s workforce is considered essential.

Another estimated 30 to 40% of the workforce is able to work from home. However, state Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) said that group is mostly made up of people with “some formal education beyond high school.” He added that largely low-income individuals and families will be the ones hit hardest by the pandemic.

Elder said that even without a pandemic, low-income workers struggle to make ends meet, adding that a majority of workers are “no more than one or two paychecks away from needing some form of public assistance.”

Throw in a crashing economy and a life-threatening disease, and it looks pretty grim for low-income Michiganders. 

“Once you [look at] this crisis, what you’re going to see is that all the cracks and fissures that exist in our society are going to be torn wide open,” Elder said. “If you have a job that is hourly and it is not protected by a labor union, then right now you are facing down serious economic circumstances.”

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The financial hit for families goes beyond whether or not a paycheck is still coming into the household, but it also affects how families afford childcare now that schools and daycares are closed or health care if a family member gets sick from COVID-19.

“We know that most workers in this country, and certainly in this state, have inadequate health care,” Elder said. “So how are people who are poor, working-class and have bad health care going to survive what’s happening right now?”

For McKinnon, who works for a large corporation, she has some protections if she gets sick and needs to take time off of work.

Meijer is offering a two-week pay continuation program that allows employees who are quarantined or who test positive for COVID-19 to stay home with pay; a backup care reimbursement program to offset the unexpected costs of unplanned child care or elder care; and a relief program to help with unplanned expenses related to COVID-19. 

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McKinnon also is given gloves and masks to wear during her shifts. Under an executive order from the governor, a limited number of customers are allowed to be in the store at once and are directed to follow social distancing rules and stay 6 feet apart. 

Whitmer’s orders have seemingly helped slow activity in grocery stores, with some exceptions. McKinnon said there is a rush of customers in the morning, but by the middle of the day, she said there are “basically no customers in the store.”

However, that doesn’t mean that all customers are following the stay-home order.

“I don’t think people are only going out for emergencies. There’s quite a few customers that I see multiple times a week,” McKinnon said. “I think that they are using Meijer as a reason to get out of their house. But I do think the majority of people are genuinely only purchasing items that they really need.”