We Say Supermarket Workers Are Essential Workers, But Are They Being Treated That Way?

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A new analysis of U.S. supermarket chains’ formal policies for their workers, which were put in place during Covid-19, was released earlier today by the nonprofit group Oxfam that works to end injustice of poverty. The analysis shows that most retailers need to improve their policies.

OAKLAND, CA – MAY 27: A cashier works at the Cardenas Markets grocery store as a for hire sign is … [+]

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The past few months is the first time in many of our lives that we have experienced empty shelves in our supermarkets and as a result much attention has been focused on our grocery workers and seen how much we depend on them. As a result we have seen grocery chains temporarily boost their hourly wages, give them bonus pay, and other organizations showcase them and thank them in their TV ads and in store. Texas retailer H-E-B announced yesterday ‘Texas Proud Pay’ the largest wage increase in the company’s history permanently. Many shoppers, also for the first time, are taking the time out to say “thank you” to these workers.

All this would seem to have those who work in supermarkets smiling from ear to ear; but the Oxfam analysis portrays a very different picture. As a result of their analysis, Oxfam is calling on supermarket chains to adopt “a fundamentally new worker-focused corporate policy that ensures workers can exercise their voice and influence decisions that impact and protect their lives, along with customers”

The nonprofit’s analysis looked at the five key areas they felt most important: paid sick leave, hazard pay, protective gear, engagement with workers and worker representatives and gender and dependent care. Oxfam worked with labor unions and others to identify gaps between each company’s stated policies and implementation – they also reached out to each of the companies they analyzed for comment: of the 5 companies analyzed only Albertsons, Kroger and Walmart offered responses, Costco and Whole Foods/Amazon did not respond.

It is important to note that there are also many regional and smaller grocery chains, and independent grocers that were not analyzed that have differing policies that are not included in this report.

The analysis reports that the United States is one of the world’s two industrialized countries that does not guarantee paid sick leave; and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost one quarter of the US workforce as no access to paid sick leave in 2019. Oxfam also found that more than half of all grocery workers in the US continue to work today without paid sick leave according to research done by the University of California and published in The Shift Project in April 2020. Oxfam also correctly points out that those most affected are women (who represent more than two-thirds of the staff at grocery store checkouts and fast food counters) and that black workers are disproportionately represented in grocery store and convenience store workers (14.2% as workers vs. 12.3% of the population) with only 58.7% who benefit from paid sick days.

There is no doubt, as Oxfam reports, that during the pandemic grocers have seen huge increases in their sales – as shoppers hoarded everything from frozen pizza and canned foods to toilet paper. Oxfam argues that the essential workers, often low-wage workers should also benefit from the in some cases, record sales and earnings. And many retailers across the nation agree, which is why they have been offering hazard pay. The entire financial picture has yet to be seen since the added costs of signage, plexiglass shields, increased sanitation procedures on everything from check stand belts to electrostatic cleaning of shopping carts, the shorter hours of operation and in some cases having to add guards to enforce face mask wearing and even the expense of store closures due to looting is calculated.

That does not mean that these front line workers should be ignored or taken advantage of. They should be paid fairly, have paid sick time (during and after the pandemic is over) and be treated as we proclaim them – as essential workers.

This moment in time should be a wake up call to supermarket chains to note where there are gaps (and frailties) in their worker policies and practices. The turnover rate for all retail employees, according to World at Work, is close to 60 percent. For hourly workers the rate jumps to 65 percent. There are supermarket retailers who pride themselves on having much lower turnover rates, at or below the national average around 15 percent. Wegmans, Publix, Hy-Vee, H-E-B and many others throughout the country put an emphasis on training their workers, paying them a fair living wage, healthcare benefits and offering them a career path – in return the shopping experience is improved along with the workers lives, and for the store turnover is considerably less which translates to a much lower cost of replacing workers.

Oxfam has once again opened our eyes; however their report highlights just five chains, albeit the largest ones with the most market share, that serve the most shoppers in the U.S.; but also lets remember there are almost 40,000 supermarkets in the nation and many of them have good principles and practices and are doing the right thing for their workers.