Frontline workers call for improved COVID-19 precautions ahead of holiday shopping rush

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)– Ahead of the holiday shopping season, some frontline workers are saying more needs to be done to keep stores safe.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union represents over 10,000 essential employees in Virginia. Janet Wainwright, a meat cutter at Kroger in Yorktown,Va., is one of them.

After losing a coworker to the coronavirus and seeing two more hospitalized earlier this year, Wainwright said she’s worried about her safety as the traditional holiday rush meets another wave of pandemic panic buying. She said stores should be capping capacity to better control crowds.

“We put our lives on the line everyday,” Wainwright said. “We have no idea who walks in that door and who they have been exposed to.”

Nationwide, the UFCW is urging governors to adopt stronger and more uniform safety standards at all food and retail stores.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently enhanced enforcement within essential retail businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies. His updated executive order makes state regulations on social distancing, face coverings and increased sanitation enforceable through the Virginia Department of Health as a Class One misdemeanor. Previously, his office said these guidelines were largely treated as best practices.

On Tuesday, VDH said they have yet to pursue charges against an essential business since Northam’s revised executive order took effect just over a week ago.

Meanwhile, Wainwright claims safety precautions are getting lax.

“When the pandemic started, we had masks out front for customers. We had cleaning supplies for customers. We had people out there cleaning carts and sanitizing the stores at night. That all went away,” Wainwright said.

As for enforcing the mask mandate, she said that usually falls to individual employees who don’t always have the courage to confront customers.

“There has never been anyone in there to tell people to stand back. You have to do that yourself,” Wainwright said. “We’ve even asked for security guards out front to approach customers as they come in so management or one of us won’t have to approach them.”

The UFCW is also pressuring large chains like Kroger to resume hazard pay, as a recent report shows them pocketing big profits during the pandemic.

“They put the dollar first before they put the people first,” Wainwright said about Kroger’s decision to cut a $2 hourly “hero bonus.”

Additionally, the UFCW is urging several large retailers to provide paid quarantine leave to prevent essential workers on tight budgets from choosing between their health and a paycheck.

The demand comes after the Virginia General Assembly rejected a bill that would’ve required paid leave for more workers during the pandemic, partially due to concerns that the policy would overburden struggling small businesses.

Kristal Howard, a spokesperson for Kroger, sent 8News the following statement about Wainwright’s accusations:

Our most urgent priority throughout this pandemic has been to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers while meeting our societal obligation to provide open stores, e-commerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain so that our communities have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials.

Since March, we have invested more than $1 billion to both reward our associates (i.e., Appreciation Pay, Hero Bonus and Thank You Pay) and to safeguard them and our customers through the implementation of safety measures. In September, we thanked our frontline associates with a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points. On Thursday, November 19, we again provided our frontline associates with a $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points.

We continue to listen to our associates and take steps to ensure their safety and well-being. We also continue to execute dozens of safety measures and provide support to our associates through benefits like paid emergency leave and our $15 million Helping Hands fund, which provides financial support to associates experiencing hardships due to COVID-19.

Kristal Howard, Kroger Spokesperson