Grocery Store Workers Fight to Wear Masks, Gloves While on the Job

A sign posted in front of a Trader Joe's reminds shopppers of purchase limits as handwipes are handed out to shoppers, some wearing facemasks from fear of the coronavirus on March 18, 2020 in Monrovia, California. - Americans have embarked on an unexpected demand for food and household products gripped by fear of the coronavirus, but meat, produce and dairy groups have said the US has enough food products in cold storage.  (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Some local managers at retail outlets like Target and grocery chains like Trader Joe’s and Vons are telling workers they cannot wear protective masks — and in some cases even gloves — at work.

The safety of grocery store workers has become increasingly important as the coronavirus pandemic has heightened the public’s reliance on supermarkets. While not a confirmed case of COVID-19, the recent death of a 49-year-old store clerk in Italy put a spotlight on the welfare of people working in grocery stores.

These workers include Sharon Cody, a deli worker at a Vons in Southern California. She loves her job, even though it has been crazy busy lately — almost three times what they normally do in business, she estimates.

Cody still loves coming in to work, but she’s worried about all of “her seniors” that are still buying groceries. She says she’s always getting on them to have someone come in and do their shopping while the pandemic is still going.

Cody has reason to be nervous for herself. She’s 68 years old and has chronic bronchitis. When she gets the flu, she says, it goes straight to her lungs.

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Cody doesn’t want to stop working. She says she’s even fine coming in six days a week and working extra hours. There is one thing she does want though: to be able to wear a mask. She and her coworkers have been asking managers to wear one and they’ve been told they can’t.

A spokesperson for Albertsons Companies, Inc, Vons’ parent company, says Cody’s manager got it wrong: The company does allow workers to wear their own masks. The company does not advise workers to do so, but they can if it makes them feel more comfortable.

The mixed signals between local managers and corporate headquarters are happening at grocery stores and retail chains all over.

An East Bay woman named Adriana says her father, who is in his 60s and works as a cashier at Target, was also told not to wear a mask and gloves. She doesn’t want to use her full name to protect her father’s job.

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Target, like Albertsons, has a policy that workers can wear their own masks and gloves if they would like. “When my dad went and asked human resources, they were like, ‘No, don’t wear the mask and don’t wear the gloves,’ ” Adriana says.

Adriana was furious. Her family had talked to her father, whose first language is Spanish, and explained how easily the coronavirus spreads. Then she learned,he wasn’t allowed to wear a mask on the job. Her father is no longer going to work and is instead taking all of his sick leave.

“I don’t know if they think that the customers are going to feel uncomfortable,” Adriana says. “But at this point, I would feel more uncomfortable if someone isn’t wearing a mask.”

Another worker at a Trader Joe’s in the Bay Area says he was told by managers that workers can’t wear masks and that the decision is coming from the corporate offices. Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents workers at Vons, but not Trader Joe's, has been pushing to increase protections for grocery workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic.

John Grant, president of the UFCW Local 770, says the union has had to negotiate for weeks to get companies to let workers wear masks on the job. He says in these uncertain times, workers should be able to take steps to make themselves feel safer and more assured at work.

Grocery stores and other retailers have been pointing to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding whether or not workers should wear masks. The CDC has urged the general public not to buy medical grade masks, because there is a grave shortage for medical personnel. It also says these masks are only effective if worn properly, which requires training. It has not said that people with masks shouldn't wear them.

Grant says the real issue for workers is that the country doesn’t have enough masks and there is not adequate training on how to use them. If the country were better prepared, and grocery store workers better supported, they would be getting more protective gear and training. UFCW is still fighting to get hand sanitizers in all stores and more breaks for hand washing.

“By increasing the protection of grocery clerks, we increase the protection of the community,” according to UFCW.

The UFCW succeeded in getting small disaster pay raises for workers at a number of grocery and meat-packing facilities. Grant says it’s a fraction of what the workers deserve for exposing themselves to illness to ensure people have a place to buy food and other necessities.

With the pandemic, he says, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of the people doing jobs labeled as “low-skilled,” are in fact truly “essential.”