Grocery stores are in a good spot financially. Can essential workers say the same?

Covid-19 has hit much of Seattle's food economy hard. Grocery stores, protected by their status as essential businesses (and bolstered by frantic pantry stocking), are a conspicuous exception. But grocery workers—lauded throughout the pandemic as frontline workers and "heroes"—aren't necessarily benefiting.

Sales at PCC Community Markets, a Seattle-area high-end food cooperative, went up nearly 50 percent at their peak, according to outgoing CEO Cate Hardy. Kroger Co., the parent company for stores like Fred Meyer and QFC, posted a 30 percent increase in sales for March. Word's still out on more recent numbers, but the Census Bureau projects a continued increase in profits for the grocery industry. 

To keep up with the increased demand—at first for long-term items like rice and canned goods and the grocer’s signature natural health products—PCC joined grocery stores like QFC in an industry-wide hiring frenzy, onboarding 90 new employees across its 14 stores. About half of those new employees came from the hard-hit local restaurant industry. 

Cashiers are among the workers most at-risk of contracting coronavirus, according to Politico. They’re also among the lowest paid. In an attempt to compensate workers for the risk they take on working with the public, some grocery chains started implementing hazard pay of $2 per hour for all employees. PCC has continued to extend the extra pay beyond its original end date, while Kroger recently faced backlash for prematurely ending its “hero pay” policy.

But some say the local grocer's efforts aren’t enough. PCC worker Jared Houston and former employee Emma Carrillo, co-writers of a petition asking the CEO and Board of Trustees for a decreased work week with forty hours pay, say management was slow to respond to growing fear within their workforce as coronavirus cases began showing up at multiple storesone at the Greenlake location in March, two at the Bothell location and one at the Redmond location in April, and, most recently, a case at the Edmonds location.

“Throughout all of this PCC’s response was very lukewarm, very like ‘wait and see,’” Houston said.

Kristen Woody, senior communications manager for PCC, says the grocer is “prioritizing the health and safety of staff by offering masks for all to wear, conducting health checks at the start of each shift, encouraging social distancing in stores and implementing a rigorous and thorough cleaning schedule.”

Several workers have also mentioned that in the past few weeks, management at some stores began having individual talks with employees about attendance, saying that too many days calling in sick—despite prior encouragement to stay home when sick in an effort to prevent the virus's spread—made them "unreliable employees." Workers say these talks have since stopped.

Woody says PCC management "currently and have always encouraged our staff to take advantage of their benefits to the fullest and don’t discriminate based on sick time taken or usage of other benefits."

The PCC Frontline Workers petition argues that a paid ten hours away from work will reduce employees’ exposure and give them more time to care for their families and their own mental health. A little over 2,500 people have signed the petition. 

PCC workers aren’t the only ones organizing against their employers’ response to the virus. Workers from Amazon and their subsidiary Whole Foods as well as gig workers from grocery delivery services Instacart and Shipt organized a strike on International Workers’ Day calling for hazard pay and personal protective equipment. Workers in Bellingham and Burien have protested outside QFC and Fred Meyer, both Kroger brand stores, asking for a hazard pay extension and more safety precautions.

It's not clear whether there's precedent in the grocery industry for the reduced work outlined by the PCC Frontline Workers petition. Being a smaller, local company that already emphasizes ethical food sourcing and worker treatment, however, may put PCC under a microscope. One of the signatories noted PCC's community-oriented, "people before profits" attitude in a petition comment: “The employees who work at the stores are part of the PCC community,” Kelly Forrest wrote. “If you don't look out for their well being during this crisis, I will question whether the 'community' part of PCC is meaningful or just marketing.”

Houston says petition writers have yet to hear from anyone at PCC. 

“I think we want a response from management,” says Houston. “I think we deserve a response.”

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