Detonia Weaver has worked as a Schnucks pharmacy technician for two decades, but she’s never seen the stores this busy.
“It's been a zoo, literally a zoo,” Weaver said.
Many grocery store employees in St. Louis are working long hours as shoppers flood stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. The very nature of their jobs puts them in close contact with many people, which increases their chances of becoming infected. But unions and state officials disagree over how best to protect these workers.
At the Schnucks pharmacy in Jennings where Weaver works, many of the patients are elderly residents worried about getting their prescriptions.
“They’re wondering, ‘Will they be able to get their medicine? Can they get a month in advance?’” Weaver said. “Some of them get upset, and we try to calm them down so they’re not having anxiety attacks.”
Even as they try to quell their patients’ fears, Weaver and her coworkers are struggling with their own anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak. Weaver has asthma, while another coworker has a weakened immune system.
“We're very concerned for our own safety, but we tend to try to put our patients before our own health,” she said. “Just like doctors and nurses, we need to be there.”
Grocery store and pharmacy workers face two main risks when it comes to coronavirus infection, said Andrew Janowski, an infectious disease specialist and physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Not only are they in close proximity with other people while doing common tasks, like restocking shelves and checking out customers, they’re also touching objects that others have handled.
“They’re having to process and swipe and manipulate all of these items,” Janowski said. “They can’t necessarily predict who has coughed or sneezed on them.”
Protecting workers during a pandemic
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, which represents nearly 10,000 grocery, pharmacy and retail workers in eastern Missouri, has asked Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to designate these employees as first responders.
The designation would provide specific benefits, including priority testing for COVID-19, access to safety equipment and child care.
Governors in other U.S. states, including Vermont and Minnesota, have taken similar steps.
“I don't think any of us thought that our jobs would be as important as they are today,” said David Cook, president of Local 655. “Why would you not do everything in your power immediately to protect the people that are supplying the food chain to your state?”
During a press conference Wednesday, however, Parson sidestepped the issue.
“Not to take anything away from somebody in the grocery store, but the reality is those first responders are classified for a reason,” Parson said.
Though he hasn’t formally rejected the proposal, Local 655 isn’t waiting for Parson to act. The union has enacted its own protective measures in response to the outbreak, including expanding its benefits package. Members who become infected with COVID-19 will now have higher short-term disability benefits and maintain 90% of their current pay.
Local grocery store chains, including Schnucks, Dierbergs Markets and Straub’s Markets, have also increased employee wages during the outbreak. Workers at Dierbergs and Straub’s will receive an extra $2 per hour, while Schnucks employees will receive a bonus of up to $500.
Providing a security net for grocery store workers is important, said Cook, because it’s only a matter of time before one of these employees becomes infected with COVID-19.
“You can’t be around that many people in the general public and not contract it,” Cook said. “It’s going to happen.”
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Correction: Schnucks, Dierbergs Markets and Straub's have increased employee pay and/or provided bonuses due to the coronavirus outbreak. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that UFCW Local 655 had negotiated these specific pay increases with the grocery chains.