business news in context, analysis with attitude

From the Washington Post this morning:

"Grocery workers across the country say morale is crushingly low as the pandemic wears on with no end in sight. Overwhelmed employees are quitting mid-shift. Those who remain say they are overworked, taking on extra hours, enforcing mask requirements and dealing with hostile customers. Most retailers have done away with hazard pay even as workers remain vulnerable to infection, or worse. Employees who took sick leave at the beginning of the pandemic say they cannot afford to take unpaid time off now, even if they feel unwell.

"The mounting despair is heightened by the lack of other job options: Supermarkets are among the few bright spots in an industry that has been ravaged by covid-related store closures and a sharp drop-off in consumer spending. The retail sector has shed 913,000 jobs and chalked up more than a dozen bankruptcies during the pandemic."

More from the Post story:

"Workers’ renewed sense of expendability comes after four straight months of double-digit unemployment. With more than 32 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits, labor experts and economists say there is an ever-growing pool of desperate people willing to face hazardous conditions and low pay to put food on the table. The nation’s 2.7 million grocery workers make, on average, $13.20 an hour, or about $27,000 a year, Commerce Department data show … At least 130 U.S. grocery workers have died, and more than 8,200 have tested positive for covid-19 since late March, according to data from workers’ groups and media reports. Grocery stores are generally not required to inform shoppers about coronavirus cases or report them to local health departments, which can make it difficult to get an accurate count."

And more:

"Adding to the stress, many workers say, are new responsibilities, including disinfecting store fixtures and enforcing social distancing and mask requirements.

"Almost every major retailer, including Walmart, Home Depot and Target, is now asking shoppers to wear masks, although employees say enforcement is spotty and often fraught. Grocery workers have been demeaned, screamed at and even assaulted for reminding shoppers of the new protocols, with some of the most egregious incidents captured on video and shared online. Illinois this week made it a felony to assault workers who are enforcing mask requirements."

KC's View:

My first question about this story:

Isn't it a felony to assault anyone?

That said, I'm okay if states and communities want to underline the importance of mask mandates and the fact that the hammer will come down on anyone who assaults or harasses workers who enforce them.

There's good reason for this:  USA Today reports that "a teenager in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was reportedly attacked while working as a hostess at a Chili's restaurant last weekend for refusing to seat a large party at a single table."

The story also says that "the same day of the incident in Louisiana, a similar attack took place in Pennsylvania.  Two people allegedly assaulted a children's theme park employee Sunday near Philadelphia after the teen reminded them of the park's face mask requirement."

Really?  At Sesame Place?  What the hell is next?  Shouting profanities at Bert and Ernie?

There's no excuse for this crap.  These people are kids and just trying to do their jobs.  When are some of these adults going to grow up and start acting like it?  (I have no patience with these people.)

Let's be clear about one thing.  Not every retailer has this problem.  There are more than a few, I'd guess, that have done a good job about communicating to employees that they remain essential, and putting into places policies and practices that reinforce this ongoing commitment.

However, I'd suggest that the retailers doing a good job are the ones who worry about it and make dealing with these issues a priority.  If you are retailer not focusing on it, or convinced that you have the situation well in hand, then I'd guess that you have a bigger problem than you know.  (Just sayin…)

From almost the beginning of the use of the word "essential" to describe retail employees, it has been a concern around here that this would be an ephemeral commitment, and that employers and customers would see workers as less essential as time went on.  The Post story reinforces that concern … but this should be be thought of as a permanent problem.  But it does require a permanent commitment to recognizing the critical - and primary - importance of front line employees.

You can't do it without them.  

One caution.  This well could become a political issue.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) the other day co-authored an op-ed piece with Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), in which they called for supermarkets to continue the hazard pay for workers that was instituted at the beginning of the pandemic.

They wrote, in part:  "The brave, dedicated workers who put themselves at risk when they enter their workplaces don't make headlines, but each of us should value their quiet courage and sacrifice every time we visit our neighborhood grocery store. We cannot take their work or safety for granted -- and their employers shouldn't either. But too many grocery chain CEOs treat their workers as expendable. This is unacceptable.

"Grocery workers are essential workers -- without them, families across the country would not have access to the food they need during this pandemic. Given the increasing dangers as Covid-19 continues to spread, the time is now to reinstate hazard pay for all of America's grocery workers."

Now, when she co-wrote this piece, Harris was just the junior senator from California.  Today, she's the presumptive Democratic nominee for the vice presidency … which means that her soapbox just got a lot bigger and higher.  I wouldn't be surprised if this became a campaign issue over the next 82 days.