Essential Work Without Essential Protections or Pay

I am a cashier at Fred Meyer. I have lived in Oregon my whole life. I am a mom of three, a daughter, a sister, and a friend. I am writing to share my experience to show why reinstating grocery workers “hero pay” increase is so crucial to workers and shoppers alike.

When the pandemic started, at first it was very confusing and a bit scary. When I heard everything was shutting down, I was not prepared for the reality of what that meant. The roads were quiet, but my store was busier than ever, with every customer having huge buys—it was nonstop. Masks were not mandatory yet and we were not really prepared for the demands of a pandemic. We constantly ran out of safety supplies for the employees. I had to buy my own hand sanitizer. All of us had to reuse masks when they should have been thrown away and we ran out of cleaning supplies so it was nearly impossible to sanitize as much as we should.

Social distancing was nearly impossible because we were so busy. Some customers respected our bubble, while others got inches from my face. Customers were panicked and mean, yelling at us like it was our fault we didn’t have products or were somehow responsible for the long lines. It took me personally a week just to get toilet paper. I would shower before I would hug my kids because it was impossible to stay ‘safe’ while at work.

Over time, we set up the store with tape and barriers to keep people six feet apart, except for the self-checkout and pay station, where social distancing is nearly impossible. For a short time, we were given a “Hero” pay increase by Fred Meyer corporate, which made working through this a little more worth it, although even with the temporary bump, I was still making less than people on unemployment.

Unfortunately, the pandemic drags on and attitudes have still not changed. Work morale for me and my co-workers has declined because we are on the front lines, risking our health so other people can have essentials, yet more people spend hours at the store, bringing their whole entire family just to get out of the house. It’s a joke. I feel dispensable. Masks became mandatory and we even had employees stand at the entrances to enforce it. I was spit on, by accident, by a customer who wanted to loudly explain to me why he didn’t think masks worked. He spit on my face and all over my arm. It really seemed like the employees were the enforcers when I feel it should have been a management job.

When masks became mandatory, the store gave us a pack of reusable masks but most of us ended up buying our own because the quality of the masks were not great. The cloth was like a thin t-shirt. Even during the wildfires when we were drowning in smoke, we had to supply our own N95 masks, if we were lucky enough to find one.

The support has never really improved. No one seems to have a solid answer for COVID-19 related questions. We are not expected to quarantine when we have been around someone who had COVID unless we are showing symptoms. They did post that temperature checks are mandatory, but in reality, you are lucky if someone is there to take your temp. I do believe my store managers are trying their best, but our employer is all about keeping the store running. We have to keep our masks on but they do not enforce the customers or the social distancing. I even had a coworker get spit on by an angry customer and he still was able to buy his stuff.

A major blow happened when our “hero” pay increase was taken away, yet nothing else changed: we are still super busy, cases are still rising, and I am still busting my butt to keep things sanitized and safe and customers in and out.

I am scared of getting COVID. I am scared of having to miss two weeks of work because I was told we do not get paid if we have to quarantine. I am scared of bringing it home to my kids or my mom. I hope we are informed when people around us test positive in a more timely manner. We were not even told that our warehouse had an outbreak of cases. I would have liked to know so I could have had the chance to wear gloves when handling the freight.

My hope is that my company sees that the extra pay is necessary. I know that bargaining is coming up, and that unions across the country are making this a big issue. I also hope that Oregon’s governor finally sees that her actions are not enough to protect essential workers in harm’s way, and that she will actually do something meaningful to protect us, and not just save face.