ne033120bigy-5004.jpg

A sheet of plexiglass separates cashier Joselyn Jimenez from customers in line at ShopRite of Commerce St. in Stamford, Conn. Monday, March 30, 2020. Many grocery stores are taking precautions in preventing the spread of coronavirus including signs promoting social distancing and plexiglass between shoppers and cashiers.

At the end of a workday, Judi Geary is always tired. 

The 56-year-old’s job as cash department head at Stop & Shop in Watertown requires her to be on her feet roving register to register, making sure the cashiers and baggers are following procedure, that carts are being brought in and the service desk is manned. Even before terms like “social distancing,” “flattening the curve” and “PPE” became commonplace, she would be physically exhausted by the end of her shift. 

Now she’s mentally drained as well. 

“You’re constantly in your head going, ‘make sure you’re respectful to the customer,’ ‘remember 6 feet,’ ‘remember disinfecting,’ ” she says. “Of course [we’re worried]. I don’t know how you could not be, but people have to shop, and it’s our job to be there.” She adds, “I try not to think about it. It is what it is. This is my job. I’m there for the public. They need to come in and get food.”

ne033120bigy-5003.jpg

A sign promotes social distancing at the entrance of Kings Food Markets in Old Greenwich, Conn. Monday, March 30, 2020. Many grocery stores are taking precautions in preventing the spread of coronavirus including signs promoting social distancing and plexiglass between shoppers and cashiers.

In the terrible Twilight Zone world of the coronavirus pandemic, grocery store workers like Geary have emerged as unlikely heroes: vital links in the chain of successful social isolation, in some ways as important to the foundation of society as other first responders. But unlike many traditional first responders, they are poorly paid — many first-year union employees start at $11.30 an hour — and the idea that their job is high-risk would have seemed absurd just a month ago.

As Keri Hoehne, executive assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 371 in Westport, puts it, “Our members didn’t sign up for this. It is a little bit different than signing up to be in the hospital as a nurse or a doctor. You sort of know that you can potentially be exposed, and you make that decision when you choose your career.” 

Hoehne’s union represents employees at Stop & Shops, some ShopRites and Acme Markets, among other businesses. She says that at least three United Food and Commercial Workers Union members in Connecticut have contracted the virus. In addition, news broke on April 2 that Trader Joe’s in Fairfield would temporarily close for cleaning after an employee at the store tested positive for the virus. It is one of seven Trader Joe’s stores across the country to close for this reason. Max Reiss, communications director for Gov. Ned Lamont, says the state is not tracking the number of grocery store employees who test positive for the virus. “It is not possible for our state resources to be used to track every individual category of employee,” he writes in an email. 

ne033120bigy-5005.jpg

A sheet of plexiglass separates cashier Marie Jean from customers in line at ShopRite of Commerce St. in Stamford, Conn. Monday, March 30, 2020. Many grocery stores are taking precautions in preventing the spread of coronavirus including signs promoting social distancing and plexiglass between shoppers and cashiers.

Until earlier this week there was no cap on crowd size within grocery stores. Under normal conditions, the larger stores can have 50 employees or more working a single shift and can hold hundreds of customers. Jason Frechette, executive vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 919 in Farmington says, “When you go to a Starbucks in Bristol, you can’t even enter into the store to get a beverage, and then you turn around and you look over into the retail grocery’s parking lot and you’ve got like 150, 200 cars parked there.” 

Several grocery store employees interviewed for this story talked about whole families coming into packed stores last weekend and seeing friends, then stopping and chatting near the registers. Other customers were seen slowly browsing, taking as long as an hour to do their shopping. 

On April 1, Lamont’s office published “safe store” rules, effective on April 3. Among other requirements, these limit those allowed inside stores to 50 percent of their normal capacity, require one-way aisles to reduce people moving in close quarters and encourage only one household member to shop unless it is absolutely necessary for them to bring someone in their care. 

The new rules also reinforce efforts that many grocery stores have voluntarily enacted, from plexiglass shields placed in front of cash registers as a barrier, to painted lines 6 feet from the register to indicate where customers should wait before checking out. But workers at these stores say people move around the plexiglass shields and misunderstand the painted lines.

Joseph Jarmie, 64, a meat cutter at Stop & Shop in Madison, says that when people “get in a supermarket, they forget where they are. They walk right by you and they walk right over you.” 

Jarmie says that he would probably not be working if he wasn’t in the meat department separated from customers for the majority of his day. He tries to avoid getting close to people when he walks to the bathroom, heading down empty aisles and holding his breath if he has to pass someone. He’s seen other employees use supply carts as barriers between them and the customers as they restock shelves.

Some grocery stores offer curbside pickup. Industry insiders encourage customers to utilize those options when possible, but say moving to exclusively curbside shopping would not be feasible logistically, so more needs to be done to make grocery store interiors safe for everyone. 

Union and industry leaders are pushing at the national and local level for their employees to be recognized as tier-two first responders. This would put them in line to receive PPE after medical professionals. Lamont’s new rules encourage employees to wear gloves and face masks whenever interacting with employees or handling products, but stores are struggling to find face masks. 

A tier-two first responder designation would also help employees become eligible for federal funds to pay for childcare, as many grocery store employees are scrambling to care for kids now home from school. “A lot of our members took vacation time for the first few weeks, but they ran out of that now and they’re trying to figure out what to do with their children,” Hoehne says. 

Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, which represents about 300 retail food stores that have a combined 30,000 employees, as well as pharmacies in the state, says that his organization is on the front end of conversations surrounding the first-responder designation. “We’ve got employees that are coming to work every day and they’re heroes. They’re on the front lines putting themselves potentially in harm’s way. And we just need to make sure that there are protections in place and protocols in place that allow for the safest environment that we can put these people in.” 

Pesce adds, “If somebody doesn’t want to come to work today, we’re going to hold their job for them. Nobody is losing their job over this.” 

Hoehne says that all the stores represented by her union are letting their members take unpaid time off and waiving regular attendance policies. “But in many cases unless our members are actually quarantined by the employer or by a state or local health authority, they’re not paid for that time. So that puts people in a tough spot.” She adds, “I get so many calls from people that just don’t feel well. This is a season where you can have lots of things that make you sick. But you can’t get readily available tests, so you can’t rule out that it’s COVID-19. You have a lot of people who are making the decision, “do I stay home just to be super safe? Or do I go to work because if I stay home I might not get paid?” 

These concerns are a reality for Brian Molinaro, 40, a ShopRite bagger and cashier in Danbury. He worries constantly about bringing something home to his wife and their 16-month-old twins. He frequently washes his hands at work and tries to avoid touching his face. When he gets home he changes out of his clothes and showers right away. “Unfortunately, I cannot stay out of work as we need the money to support my family,” he says. 

Geary, the employee at Stop & Shop in Watertown, continues to be upbeat. “I became a first responder without any college education,” she laughs. Her Facebook feed is filled with a mix of serious suggestions for shoppers and lighthearted content related to the industry including a meme referencing the famous “spare a square” episode from Seinfeld. But she knows this situation is no joke and wants customers to respect the 6-foot distancing guideline and others. “I just don’t think that a lot of people understand how we’re putting ourselves in harm's way,” she says. “Not everybody is taking this seriously.” 

She also wants people to know that as long as she can, she’ll continue going to work. “We were on strike almost exactly a year ago and every single one of our customers respected us. They never crossed that line, which gave us the ability to get what we needed. I think that is what is driving the Stop & Shop associates to help their customer. They were there for us and so now we will be there for them.”