March 22, 2021 -- Grocery store workers were called heroes last year for going to work after the pandemic started and states were in lockdown. A year later, many of them say they are still risking their health and lives at work and they should have priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am glad that CDC says grocery store workers should be a priority for the vaccine -- feels like a startling light at the end of a tunnel,” Eric Nelson, an online shopper for Kroger in Cincinnati, OH, said during a recent news briefing hosted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents more than 800,000 U.S. grocery employees. “My co-workers and I [are] hoping that we finally get some type of relief. But how long do we keep waiting to be vaccinated?”
At least 137 grocery workers have died and more than 30,100 have been infected or exposed to the coronavirus in the past year, according to the union. In the past 2 months alone, there have been coronavirus outbreaks at grocery stores in Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, and other cities.
Nearly 500 Kroger workers in Houston-area stores alone have been infected, Kroger worker Dawn Hand of in Houston said at the union briefing.
“Since the pandemic started, my co-workers and I constantly worry about getting COVID. Kroger should be doing much more to protect us and my co-workers,” she said.
She, Nelson, and Kathleen Scott, who works at Albertsons in Los Angeles, complained that the stores put them at risk by cutting their hours and being understaffed despite being busier than ever.
“It’s overcrowded and impossible to socially distance. If we get sick, we can’t afford to stay home and wait for test results. Essential workers need to get vaccinated because our companies are ignoring the risks we are taking. Every day we wait, we’re at risk of getting COVID and passing it to our families,” Scott said.
She also complained that managers weren’t taking COVID-19 risks seriously. “Upper-level managers at our store still say it’s just a flu, and one wears a mask beneath his nose while workers are still worried about catching the virus. Our store had 10 infections last month.”
The food workers union has called on grocery stores to enforce mask-wearing and resume hazard pay, which was discontinued after the lockdowns. They have also called on governors and other elected officials to prioritize grocery workers for COVID-19 vaccinations in line with the CDC recommendations issued in December.
Still Waiting to Be Vaccinated
Kroger, which is one of the largest grocery chains, has been vaccinating employees in Illinois since they became eligible last month, but grocery workers aren’t yet eligible in most of the jurisdictions in which the company operates. Target, Walmart, and Sam’s Club also said they would offer their workers vaccines at their own pharmacies as soon as they are eligible.
The CDC recommended that front-line essential workers be vaccinated in the next phase, after health care workers and nursing home residents, but local jurisdictions decide how they want to use the CDC guidance.
There are about 30 million critical essential workers made up of first responders (police, firefighters), K-12 teachers and support staff, and workers in transportation, corrections, food and agriculture, postal jobs, and grocery stores, Margaret Kitt, MD, lead for the CDC Essential Workers Team of the COVID Vaccine Task Force, said on a COVID-19 Partner Update call last month.
Just 13 states have followed the CDC recommendation and prioritized grocery store workers for vaccination, according to the food workers union. These include Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Alabama, Hawaii, and Michigan.
Eleven other states, including Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas, do not have a clear plan to prioritize grocery workers, according to the workers advocacy group United for Respect.
In Tennessee, grocery workers aren’t expected to qualify for the vaccine until the second half of the year, along with overnight camp counselors and prison inmates, who are part of the state’s Phase 3 designation.
“Our employees have worked tirelessly during this pandemic and yet are not being given the protections necessary to do their job,” Addie James, marketing director for four High Point Grocery and Cash Saver stores in Memphis, TN, told The Washington Post. “It feels like you’re screaming into the void but nobody is listening.”
To complicate things further, the Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration encouraged states in January to focus their vaccination efforts on people 65 and older and those with medical conditions. At least two-thirds of all states have included this age group in the second phase of vaccination, often ahead of essential workers, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has encouraged states to prioritize K-12 teachers for vaccination so schools can reopen safely in the spring. Many states have put teachers and support staff ahead of other front-line essential workers, including grocery store workers.
“What we’re seeing is a pattern where states trying to simplify this -- they see deploying guidelines as too complicated, and the messaging is from the governor’s office versus the health commissioner,” Rebecca Weintraub, MD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said during a recent news briefing.
“Several states have deployed an age band,” she said. “There’s concern about that simplification -- some would say it leads to equity: If you can prove your age status, you can get your vaccine. While others say this has made it quite difficult for front-line essential workers to be prioritized whose risk of exposure is quite clear, but they don’t fit in those age bars.”
Even grocery workers ages 65 and older are having a hard time getting vaccinated, said Safeway worker Sue Wilmot in Seattle during the union’s media call last month. “I work with three people in that age group who Safeway told to go online to get an appointment, although they are vaccinating at my store. But because they were working, they lost out on getting an appointment.”
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said that is why he’s asking CEOs of grocery stores to give workers paid time off to receive each dose.
Onsite Vaccination and Employer Incentives
The CDC recommends that employers consider making COVID-19 vaccination part of their workplace wellness programs and that they offer free onsite COVID-19 vaccinations during work hours. “They should also offer flexible paid leave policies for those workers that may experience post-vaccination symptoms,” said Kitt.
Wisconsin-based convenience store chain Kwik Trip Inc. has begun giving shots to eligible workers at three employee primary care sites operated by Marathon Health, Marathon’s CEO told Bloomberg News.
But “the wrinkle is if you have a vaccination effort that may be considered a wellness program, under the ADA [American with Disabilities Act], there’s a limit to the incentive you can offer. If you say to employees, they get a $100 gift certificate or 2 hours off to get vaccinated, you may have to offer the equivalent [accommodation] to people who claim medical exceptions,” says Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, PhD, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
When grocery store workers become eligible for the vaccine in their states, most can get vaccinated at their store pharmacies. Many large food store chains, including Kroger, Albertsons, Publix, Costco, and Sam’s Club, are taking part in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which has drugmakers ship vaccines directly to them.
“Regardless of whether the vaccination occurs on or offsite, it should be company policy that anyone who gets vaccinated should get paid leave. They should not have to use their regular sick leave for this,” says Reiss.
Grocery chain Aldi announced last month that it will provide its hourly workers with 2 hours of pay for each vaccine dose they receive, giving workers up to 4 hours total of paid time off for the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Aldi also said it will "cover costs associated with vaccine administration" for employees who want to get vaccinated.
Dollar General will give its workers a one-time payment equivalent to 4 hours of pay after they get a completed vaccination. Trader Joe's will give workers "an additional 2 hours of regular pay per dose for taking the time to get vaccinated," a spokesperson for the company said in an email.
Grocery delivery service Instacart is offering a $25 stipend to its shift leads, in-store shoppers, and full-service shoppers to take time away to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some grocery stores, including Walmart and Sam’s Club, are providing workers paid emergency leave if they have vaccine side effects. In addition to telling associates when they are eligible for vaccination, “we have enhanced our COVID emergency leave policy to include 3 days of paid leave for any vaccine side effects for our associates,” Laura Ladd Poff, senior manager of corporate communications for Sam’s Club, said in an email.
While Sam’s Club and Walmart are not offering workers incentives to get vaccinated, Kroger announced last month that it would give any worker who gets fully vaccinated a $100 bonus. This is in addition to the $100 store credit and 1,000 fuel points for hourly front-line grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy, and call center associates, according to a statement.
Kroger says it continues to take several actions to protect its workers, including advocating for priority vaccine access for its front-line workers, requiring customers to wear masks in stores or shop online, supplying workers with masks, and limiting capacity of customers, according to a statement.
Amazon has also advocated for priority access to the vaccine for its workers and offered its hourly employees in the U.S., such as those working in Operations, Customer Service, and Whole Foods Markets, $40 for each dose of the vaccine if they have to go off-site for the vaccine.