Behind the Front Lines: What Grocery Store Workers Want Shoppers to Know in Light of COVID-19

An interview with Angelica Engel by Dayna Long

Angelica Engel works at Willy Street Co-op’s East location in the deli and the juice bar. She is a member of the UE 1186 bargaining committee, which just negotiated the union’s first contract with Willy Street Co-op Management, ratified earlier this month. Engel is also a member of Madison Area DSA.

DL: How does it feel to work in a grocery store right now? How is morale for you and your co-workers and what are the biggest stressors? 

AE: I would say that work at the grocery store feels more meaningful than it has ever felt before. It is really nice that there’s recognition that our work is important and that distributors of food have important jobs. 

Morale has been mixed. Generally, people I’ve interacted with have been in pretty fine spirits. There’s a sense of camaraderie right now. But the people who are at work seem to be pleased to be there helping out. 

However, many are not at work because they have some kind of illness, but nobody can get tested so we’re not sure. So it would be great to have more certainty about that. Many have taken anxiety related time off of work. 

There’s also a lot more sudden emotional overhwhelm than ever before. Where it’s just – you just suddenly are crying. And then there’s a fear of getting sick obviously and anxiety – lots of anxiety – about how this is impacting our friends and our family members who also work in food service but not at a grocery store and who are now unemployed. 

DL: Is it stressful to be interacting with the public as regularly as you are right now? 

AE: At the beginning when we were just starting new measures – changing out deli services and enforcing occupancy rules, keeping under 50 people in the store at a time – there was more stress with interacting with the public. But that has changed over time as people have grown more accustomed to the new way we’re doing things. 

DL: In a lot of workplaces, we’re seeing that it’s the workers who first recognized how COVID-19 was going to impact what they do and understood what changes need to be made to make the workplace safe. It makes sense because workers have firsthand experience that bosses and owners often lack. How do you think this played out in terms of preparation for COVID-19 at your workplace? Are there steps you want the Co-op to take that member-owners and shoppers can advocate for?

AE: Thus far, we have not heard about a plan for if and probably when a worker tests positive. Do we all drop what we’re doing and leave? Who’s going to work? I mean, we have the temporary agreement between the union and management related to COVID-19 that there would be temp workers and what not, but it’s hard to understand what would happen if we heard that somebody who had been at work just recently tested positive. And of course tests aren’t very available so maybe we don’t have to worry about that. But that’s messed up.

Also the bargaining committee needs to be more included in the decision making regarding this crisis. We’re standing in as the interim officers [of the union]. Stewards need to be more included in the decision making. So putting pressure on management regarding these features would be helpful. 

It also seems like it would be really beneficial if there was more clear and thorough communication about sanitation standards. There’s a lot of new processes that are getting put in about how to clean things down at the end of the night but not everyone is getting this information. Better communication would be great. And I recognize that there’s mixed communications at all levels of government here. 

The capacity of the store being decreased from before was helpful but it seems like it could be beneficial to decrease it even more. Even though we have the lines on the floor for social distancing from workers, it’s still very difficult to move around the store and maintain six feet of distance between people. Some of these aisles are barely six feet wide. So having less people in the store seems like it would help. Also I know that our curbside pickup and delivery options have been ramped up a bit. It would be great to see even more of that just to reduce that capacity of the store.

DL: You and your co-workers are coming off of a successful campaign to unionize and you just negotiated your first contract with co-op management. How are those efforts impacting the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis? 

AE: I think there’s a sense that we feel better protected since we have the contract. Also a great sense that it got [ratified] just in time. It was right down to the wire. We weren’t able to properly celebrate our victory because that ten person limit [on gatherings] came in the day that our ratification meetings were happening. So we really got it done just in time. 

I find it pretty poignant that our unionization campaign started with the no-fault attendance policy, with people being disciplined for calling in sick. So now we have our sick time and we won’t get disciplined for using it but there’s a sense that we need to protect it more than ever. We don’t want to deplete our sick banks because of COVID-19. There is protection against that with the legislation that went through and with the agreement with management we made on the fly that very Monday of the [contract] ratification. But there’s still so much confusion and anxiety and we would like more of an assurance that we’ll have a job if we have long-term impacts from this crisis. 

DL: In states like Vermont and Minnesota, grocery store workers have been designated emergency workers during the COVID-19 crisis, which both allows grocery workers to keep reporting to work as other non-essential workers are ordered to stay at home, and makes them eligible for certain benefits, like free childcare. Do you think this designation would be helpful for grocery store workers in Wisconsin? What other policy changes would help grocery workers continue to provide the services that we’re all recognizing are essential to our communities?

AE: I think that absolutely it would be helpful in Wisconsin for grocery store workers to be emergency workers. A lot of people have kids and kids aren’t in school. And that’s definitely caused some people to already use the extra two weeks they got as a part of our agreement with management. But this obviously isn’t going away as fast as we thought it might. So that would absolutely help. 

Generally, policy changes that would be very helpful for grocery store workers are the same things that would be beneficial to all workers. These obviously aren’t things that can necessarily happen immediately since there’s so much going on. But the same things that we always hear about – cancelling student debt, having universal basic income, higher wages, Medicare for all, so that we can be more flexible about how many hours we work and don’t get burned out as fast, so we don’t have as much exposure to pathogens, and so that we’d be able to have more flexibility in general and less stress. So that we could know that we won’t be financially ruined if we fall ill and can’t work for a while.

DL: Is there anything else you want people to understand about the experiences grocery workers are having right now? 

AE: There’s anxiety about what we’ll be doing day to day. You know, you go into work and you don’t know what department you’re gonna be in necessarily. Things change from minute to minute and that’s not necessarily under anyone’s control. But just know that like all workers are having less predictability, less certainty, more stress, that impacts us maybe even more since we still have to go to work and there’s so much fear around [COVID-19]. Have some sensitivity and understanding that we’re doing the best we can. If our moods are off, there’s a reason.

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