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'I Feel Scared': Grocery Workers Demand More Pay And Protection As Infections Rise

Lisa Wilson stepped onto a bench and lifted a bullhorn to speak outside the Whole Foods in Boston's South End. Until recently, she said, she worked at the AMC Boston Common. But after the movie theater was shutdown, she got a job as a cashier at a Shaw's grocery store in Hyde Park.

"I was just happy to have a job," she said. But less than two weeks into the new gig, "the fear of getting sick, kinda of overrides the joy of having a job."

At her store, employees are not provided with masks or gloves, but must instead purchase their own. And while she can purchase gloves from her own store, masks have been nearly impossible to find.

"With my insurance, if I get sick, it's going to be hard," she said. "The idea that I have to put my life on the line is crazy."

In response to a WBUR inquiry, a spokesperson for Shaw's, which also manages Star Market, said the companies were "in the process [of] sourcing disposable masks and will make them available to associates in stores."

Wilson was among a dozen or so protestors who gathered in the South End on Tuesday demanding increased hazard pay, more generous sick leave, and better protective measures for grocery workers. The protest came amid increasing reports of grocery store workers who have come down with COVID-19.

The protestors stood several feet apart on the sidewalk outside the store. Holding signs and donning medical masks, they took turns leading the group in chants like, "Essential, not disposable!" Grocery workers are among those the state deems "essential" during a time when most retail stores are shutdown.

Other participants at the protest said they work at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Stop & Shop. Each of these companies have said they are taking steps to keep employees safe, from limiting the number of customers that can be in the store at one time, to ramped up cleaning and disinfection regimens, to providing additional sick leave for individuals who are placed under quarantine or who test positive for COVID-19.

In addition, the stores have instituted temporary pay increases: Shaw's has promised "appreciation pay" of an additional $2 per hour for all union and non-union workers until April 18; Whole Foods has raised hourly pay by $2, and provided up to two weeks of additional paid time off for employees who are placed in quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19; Stop & Shop workers received 10% pay bump in late March raise after the union representing them, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), put pressure on the company to do so; and Trader Joe's has offered bonuses to employees working during the pandemic.

However, those who turned out to protest on Tuesday said that such concessions were insufficient given the risk they are facing each time they go to work.

“I feel scared,” said Wilson. “I feel like I’m going to get sick. I feel like it’s inevitable. But at the same time, not working is not an option.”

The protest was not organized by any union. Instead, organizers described it as a grassroots action meant to inspire other grocery store workers to sign a petition calling for better working conditions.

Also on Tuesday, Market Basket confirmed that an employee at its Salem, Mass. store died after contracting COVID-19.

Later that afternoon, during Gov. Charlie Baker's daily coronavirus briefing, he said the state would issue new guidance for grocery stores, which includes a provision that stores cannot allow more than 40% of the legal maximum occupancy at one time.

This article was originally published on April 07, 2020.

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Adrian Ma Twitter Reporter
Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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