Betty wasn't even a grocery store employee until last month, when the spread of the novel coronavirus forced her out of her job of ten years.
Her work as a yacht owner's representative dried up almost overnight as the pandemic largely pushed nonessential boats off the water. Answering a help-wanted ad for a cashier at a Fort Lauderdale Publix, she became one of thousands of new workers the Lakeland-based supermarket chain hired to keep up with the increased demand for groceries.
Day after day, Betty rings up customers' items, accepts their cash, and runs her fingers through a change drawer. Her best line of defense from the virus, aside from the mask over her mouth and nose, is the disinfectant she uses to wipe down the conveyor belt after each use.
"I'm doing what I can do for myself and for others by wearing a mask, by sanitizing my hands constantly," she says. "You know, I'm protecting them as much as I'm protecting myself."
Now that grocery employees have become essential workers, Betty is on the frontlines of an unprecedented public-health crisis. At a time when officials have urged Floridians to stay home and avoid being in close contact with others, Betty interacts with hundreds of people a day. Her salary: $12.25 an hour.
"I would say we're pretty [much] frontline workers," she affirms. "But we're being treated as if we're just disposable."
Despite the protective measures initiated at grocery chains nationwide, workers are invariably being exposed to the virus. Even as their employers enjoy record sales, many store-level employees who live paycheck to paycheck have had to choose between their livelihood and their health.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, at least 72 grocery, pharmacy, and retail frontline workers in the United States had died of COVID-19 by April 28. The union, which represents more than 1 million people across the U.S. and Canada, has been imploring states and the federal government to designate grocery workers as "extended first responders" or emergency personnel.
"Grocery workers are deeply concerned," Marc Perrone, UFCW's international president, said in an April 13 statement. "The fact is that this pandemic represents a clear and present danger to our nation's food supply and all grocery-store workers."
Workers from at least 30 Publix locations across South Florida have tested positive for COVID-19, the Miami Herald reported April 24. As far as Betty knows, at least one confirmed case has been linked to her store. (Publix did not respond to multiple requests for comment from New Times.)
Employees at three South Florida Trader Joe's locations — in Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Delray Beach — also have had confirmed cases.
"We have implemented protocols and measures that meet and exceed CDC recommendations," Trader Joe's spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel told New Times in an email. "We were one of the first grocery stores to reduce store hours, regulate the number of customers in our stores, and implement social distancing protocol in all stores."
New Times interviewed one Publix worker and three Trader Joe's employees for this story; all four asked to be identified with a pseudonym, fearing retaliation from their employers.
The three Trader Joe's employees, all of whom work at the Miami Beach location making $15 to $16 an hour, say they do their jobs in a constant state of anxiety, on top of the stressors caused by the pandemic.
"Every time someone coughs, clears their throat, or sneezes, workers are jumping like a scared cat," says Angelica, a college graduate who studied history and anthropology. Unable to find work in those fields, she took a job at Trader Joe's to cover her bills.
Karen, a young employee who works at the store to support her immigrant parents, says that although she's typically a people person, she has struggled to deal with anxious customers who are sometimes snippier than usual.
"These moments of crisis sometimes bring out the worst of people, and while I was bagging for a customer, she expressed herself in a rude manner as she complained and stuck her hands in a bag I was currently working on because she didn't like the way I bagged it," she recounts. "It sounds silly, but it's a lot."
Compounding the situation is the fact that Karen spends her nights unable to sleep, worried that she might unknowingly be bringing the virus home to her family.
"I haven't gotten a good night's rest in forever, so I wake up groggy every day with little to no motivation," she says.
Jose, who is immunocompromised, says having to work through the pandemic has caused serious psychological distress. He's normally a cheery guy, but these days he feels almost paralyzed by stress from the time he wakes up.
"To see that a Trader Joe's worker died from COVID-19 in New York and to see the way things are being handled here — I really fear the same will happen in Miami," he says.
On one occasion, Jose says, he had to call in sick after he was struck by a panic attack.
"Once I got word that five of my coworkers were feeling symptoms, I felt too anxious to go in for my shift and had to call out," he says. "The truth is, I am simply drained. I feel depleted on so many levels that I just do not know how much more of this constant, never-ending, and increasing stress I can take."
In mid-March, after Trader Joe's confirmed the first case of a Miami Beach employee with COVID-19, the store's management called an all-staff huddle. When some employees expressed concerns about catching the virus, they were brushed off, according to all three workers who spoke with New Times.
"The regional manager didn't take our concerns seriously. When asked what would happen if another employee got sick, she responded jokingly by saying, 'That won't happen — I am sending you positive vibes,'" Karen says.
On April 9, the store's employees received an email notifying them of two more confirmed cases at the same location. The email did not include any recommendations or advice for workers to quarantine themselves, despite the fact that employees in the store work in close proximity to one another.
The workers say they worried not only for themselves but for their customers.
"If I was a customer living with an immunocompromised person, I would want to know that I'm shopping at a store with multiple confirmed cases," Jose says.
The employees say that for most of March, they were prohibited from wearing either protective masks or gloves, and that managers told them such gear was unsanitary and unpleasant. Some workers believe that policy was intended to keep customers in the dark. They say that in the absence of clear instructions for social distancing, shoppers seemed to roam the aisles as if nothing had changed.
"When this crisis first began, our store was utter chaos: customers everywhere, long lines, no limitations on how many customers could come in at once, and overall, no adhering to six-feet social distancing," Angelica says.
Later, the company reversed course, providing employees with custom red masks and gloves. The Miami Beach store now limits how many customers may shop at one time.
Trader Joe's spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel disputes much of what the Miami Beach employees told New Times.
She denies that a manager made the "positive vibes" comment, calling it "disappointing and not true."
"I'm not sure who told you this, but there are dozens of Crew Members who were there for the huddle and can confirm this never happened," she writes in an email. "From the beginning, we have taken this situation very seriously."
Friend-Daniel also asserts that employees were not barred from wearing gloves.
"Gloves have always been available at this store, however, we have continued to stress CDC guidance that frequent and proper handwashing is one of the best ways to protect against the virus," she writes.
But a March 20 email from one of the Miami Beach store's managers suggests that gloves had been forbidden until that point.
"Next, we will now have the option of wearing gloves when you feel necessary," reads the email, which an employee shared with New Times. "If you do choose to do so at the register please change them out frequently."
Publix maintained a ban on masks and gloves throughout most of March but changed its policy after the Herald published a story that quoted fed-up workers. Since that time, the company has rolled out a series of measures to mitigate the risk of infection, including making shopping aisles one-way, installing Plexiglas at pharmacy counters and checkout lanes, and issuing employees hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks.
By governmental order, masks are now mandatory for workers and customers alike. As of April 10, anyone entering a business in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties must wear a facial covering.
Nevertheless, Betty says, Publix employees still have to turn away shoppers who insist that pulling their shirts over their mouths will do the trick. "It's scary in a way that people don't take it seriously," she says.
For now, arrows of blue tape stretch the expanse of each aisle, indicating one-way foot traffic.
"Nobody sees it," Betty says. "So you're constantly reminding people that there's one-way aisles or to please stand back. It's there, but it's not that effective."
The aisles get crowded regardless, and people largely tend to disregard which direction the arrows beneath their feet are pointing. Aside from an occasional announcement over the store intercom, enforcement is limited, Betty says.
Days ahead of Broward County's mask mandate, the supervisors at Betty's store distributed a single blue surgical mask to each employee. She also received instructions, written by Publix, on how to disinfect it.
After her shifts, when Betty returns to her apartment, she strips off her work clothes and sprays them down with disinfectant. In her kitchen, she stretches her single-use, disposable facemask over a boiling pot of water so she can use it again the next day. This, she read in the instructions her employer gave her, is supposed to disinfect the mask.
Public-health officials, however, have discouraged steaming single-use masks, warning that the practice not only might be ineffective but could accelerate the deterioration of the mask.
Masks are "just like tissue papers, which are meant to be single-use items," Dr. Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist and director of the Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong told Agence France-Presse earlier this year. “You won't ask people to steam it, air-dry it, and reuse it a second or a third time. This is not a logical way of resolving [the] shortage of disposable surgical masks."
When a New Times reporter pointed out those findings to Betty, it was the first she'd heard of them. Steaming her mask, she says, was the only instruction workers at her store received about disinfecting.
Fighting to organize
When it comes to advocating for themselves, grocery workers at the bottom of the pecking order don't generally have a lot of recourse. Additionally, while the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union represents employees at Kroger, Safeway, and Albertson, among others, workers at Publix and Trader Joe's have no union representation.
Trader Joe's employees are trying to change that. Shortly before the coronavirus prompted national concern, a coalition of workers at the company announced its intent to unionize. Soon after going public on March 1, the leaders of the effort found themselves in a labor battle in an unprecedented time.
Amid the pandemic, hazard pay has been one of the organizers' key demands, as a way to acknowledge the risks grocery workers must take to support an economic system that undervalues their contributions.
"We feel that being this exposed during a pandemic classifies as hazardous conditions," Angelica says.
On March 31, Trader Joe's employees received a letter from the chain's CEO, Dan Bane. In his two-page missive, Bane made it clear that executives were aware of recent complaints from workers — and he made it even clearer what those executives thought of the effort to organize.
"I am convinced that any Crew Member who critically considers the question [of whether to unionize] will conclude that being a Crew Member at Trader Joe's beats being a 'member' of a union," Bane wrote.
Karen says she felt the letter was an effort to dissuade workers from continuing to advocate for their safety and make demands of the company.
"The reason that there are so many talks of organizing a union in the first place is because there's a serious need to do so," she says. "I took this letter as almost a threat: It's either my job or joining the union. But all we are asking for is to be treated with dignity and to feel safe."
Trader Joe's announced in mid-March that it would pay employee bonuses in light of an "unprecedented increase" in sales. But the three workers in Miami Beach say they were disappointed to learn that the bonus amounted to $2 per hour.
To some, the gesture seemed out of step with the boom in sales. "The sales were so high on the first few days that by noontime during one of my shifts, our manager informed us we had already surpassed our daily sales goal," Angelica recounts.
All three workers who spoke to New Times say the support the union and hope the negotiations will lead to the vital protections they seek. But they say the way management has handled the coronavirus crisis leaves room for doubt.
"Trader Joe's first core value is integrity, and it's safe to say they have not handled this situation from a place of integrity, for the workers or customers," says Jose, who is looking to get involved with the organizing team. "This job is not a side gig. I depend on this paycheck to survive."
While Trader Joe's is a privately held company that does not publish sales figures, Publix is owned in part by its employees and issues earnings reports. So far this year, the grocery giant has seen its sales skyrocket. Earlier this month the grocery giant reported first-quarter sales of $11.2 billion, an increase of 16 percent over the same timeframe last year. The company attributed about $1 billion of the revenue to the pandemic.
"Never before have we experienced a more challenging time," Publix CEO Todd Jones said in a statement announcing the quarterly earnings. "Our associates' efforts to serve our customers and communities have been nothing short of extraordinary. I want to thank our associates and couldn’t be more proud to serve alongside them."
Unlike Trader Joe's, Publix workers like Betty have yet to see any financial benefit from the fruitful first quarter.
She tells New Times she hopes Publix will begin to offer employees more PPE or additional pay. "It's the right thing to do," she says. "But I'm not seeing it."
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