Grocery workers are among the most vulnerable

By GUY McCARTHY The Union Democrat



Alberta Newspaper Group


Cashier Trish Avilla and store manager Jeff Laurel have worked through the COVID-19 pandemic at the PriceCo Foods grocery in The Junction shopping center in East Sonora. They come to work in masks and gloves every day. They are among the hundreds of most vulnerable, often isolated, and under-recognized workers who place themselves at risk every day in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic that, as of mid-March, had contributed to the deaths of 59 Tuolumne County residents, 50 Calaveras County residents, 55,795 Californians, and more than 538,000 Americans since the pandemic began taking hold in early 2020. A year ago the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people avoid close contact with others as the most effective way to protect themselves from getting the coronavirus. For many Mother Lode workers, especially those who work in grocery stores, avoiding close contact with others is nearly impossible. Avilla, 43, a resident of Sierra Village, is a head cashier, and in May she will mark 12 years at the same store. “The two things I've realized since this pandemic started is some people don't follow rules, and they are selfish,” Avila said in a recent interview in Laurel's manager's office at the Junction PriceCo. “At the beginning of this, a year ago, people were awful,” she said. “It felt like we were here as a family to help people get the supplies they need. And in the same sense, we're putting our lives at risk, and people had no respect. People were yelling at me because they couldn't use their own bags, or they didn't want to wear their masks. All we ask is they wear their masks for three minutes while they stand in line to pay, to protect us.” Scores of grocery workers throughout the Mother Lode have continued coming to work for the past year in sometimes crowded stores. They try to help customers, and sometimes they find discarded masks and rubber gloves, left in shopping baskets and shopping carts, inside and outside the store. They've dealt with panic buyers hoarding hand sanitizers and toilet paper. They've had unmasked customers yell in their faces. On Valentine's Day this year, the Los Angeles Times reported that few essential workers have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than grocery store workers. Their stores never closed, and they served as a lifeline to communities while most of the rest of the economy was in lockdown mode. The fall and winter surge was devastating for grocery store workers in Southern California, where thousands of them tested positive for coronavirus. At times over the past year of COVID-19 restrictions, grocery stores across the United States and California became a public battleground for people who doubt coronavirus is real. Unhappy with their federal, state and local governments and public health recommendations, some grocery store customers have felt entitled to misdirect and take out their anger on grocery store workers, who in many cases are minimum wage earners. The Union Democrat reached out to Safeway, Save Mart and other grocery stores seeking individual workers to interview. Marketing staff for these corporations all declined to allow their workers to speak for the record about their experiences during the pandemic. In off-therecord conversations and in online social media posts, grocery store workers have vented for the past year. The observations Avilla and Laurel shared reflect the same frustrations, fears and anxieties other grocery store workers have dealt with. Avilla said she never considered quitting. She likes her job and her co-workers, and she needs the paycheck. “Life in general is hard,” she said. “You can't throw in the towel when things get rough. A lot of our customers are really like family to us.” “We know them by name,” Laurel, 38, a resident of Stockton, said in the same interview. “They need us,” Avilla added. “We're here for them in a time of need.” “That lady is front line, she works front line, like a lot of the people who work here,” Laurel said of Avilla and other PriceCo employees. “It would be nice if customers would be more courteous to them. At the end of the day, they don't get paid to be yelled at by people. They're doing their jobs.” Avila said it was awful at times what she experienced at work. She'd go home at night and cry, because she was so exhausted from people yelling at her. A year since the pandemic began taking hold in the Golden State and the rest of the U.S., things are getting better. Customers generally seem to have a better attitude, more patience and more common decency, Avilla said. “People are getting nicer,” she said. “We have toilet paper again. People can use their own bags again. Some customers even make masks for us now. We appreciate it.” Avilla said it's been a long year, and she and other grocery store workers have a lot to say. “We're ready for whatever is next,” she said. “Don't say pandemic, we don't need another and this one was awful. We'll be here for whatever the next crisis is.” Laurel said he thinks everyone should have to work in a grocery store for a day. “So they can see what it's like,” he said. “Everybody's attitude would change a little.” A study conducted by Harvard University researchers in May showed that grocery store workers may be up to five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than colleagues who don't have direct contact with customers, Safety+Health magazine, published by the nonprofit National Safety Council, reported in November. The study by scientists at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health first appeared Oct. 30 in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine. They set out to investigate SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and infection and exposure risks among grocery retail workers, and to investigate their mental health state during the pandemic. They focused on 104 workers at a single grocery store in Boston. “In this single store sample, we found a considerable asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection rate among grocery workers,” the study's authors, Fan-Yun Lan, Christian Suharlim, Stefanos Kales, and Justin Yang wrote. “Employees with direct customer exposure were five times more likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Those able to practice social distancing consistently at work had significantly lower risk of anxiety or depression.” Contact Guy McCarthy at or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.