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A Whole Foods Worker Feels The Burden Of Essential Work


Grocery stores across the country have had to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. And workers are feeling the burden. Thousands have tested positive for COVID-19. Dozens have died.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I never expected that we'd be in the same page as doctors as being essential workers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a Whole Foods employee in Washington, D.C. He spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity because he fears getting fired. We should also say Whole Foods funds NPR. Our Whole Foods worker says his one store has had multiple workers test positive for the novel coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I've realized I had worked several days for eight-hour shifts with the affected team member. And I was not being asked to be quarantined.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says his small work area made it impossible to properly socially distance the recommended 6 feet. He and the affected co-worker used the same equipment and touched the same surfaces.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When I expressed this to my superior, they asked me what my concern was - if I was feeling any symptoms. And I told him I wasn't feeling any symptoms. But at the same time, it could be that I'm asymptomatic, and I could be carrying this virus and spreading it to my co-workers, who I spend more time with than my own family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He eventually received paid time off to quarantine. But looking back on the experience, he wished that the company didn't leave it up to workers to figure out if they were exposed to the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If I didn't express my concerns, I would probably still be working.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an email statement, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market says the company alerts team members about confirmed cases through calls, texts or in-person meetings. They now require temperature checks and that all employees wear face masks. Quote, "Those measures are shaped not only by CDC and local health authorities but by feedback from individual team members." Our Whole Foods employee says, though, he only learned about most confirmed cases in his store by word of mouth. And Whole Foods refused to confirm any numbers to us. Whole Foods isn't the only supermarket chain facing scrutiny. Other major retailers like Walmart and Kroger are under pressure to be more transparent about their coronavirus cases. But John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, says releasing this information is voluntary.

JOHN LOGAN: When an employee falls sick or when a number of employees fall sick at a particular store or even when an employee dies, there's no requirements coming from the national level to say that they must immediately investigate and announce this and make it known to other employees and make it known to the public.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And stores are unlikely to adopt these practices unless forced to. Ideally, what needs to change, Logan says, is the view of grocery store workers before the pandemic.

LOGAN: They were viewed as utterly disposable before - you know, unskilled, low wage, you know, mostly woman, people of color overrepresented, nonunion - now we know that they're actually keeping, you know, tens of millions of Americans alive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As this pandemic continues, the need for more grocery store workers has grown, creating hundreds of thousands of new job openings. The question is whether those who stock shelves, prepare food, and run the cash registers will find those jobs worth it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.

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