As part of a continuing series of interviews with frontline workers in Texas, Seth Uzman spoke with two anonymous Kroger workers and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, working in different stores across Dallas. Since the onset of the pandemic, organizing in this sector, Anthony Elmo of UFCW Local 1000 told Section 44, “has become almost exclusively digital and virtual,” while the industry’s surge in hiring has resulted “in thousands of new members in the last month” from the work of dedicated shop stewards and union representatives. In a majority-women workforce, predominantly of color as well as older, struggles with management remain, according to Elmo, over extended hazard pay, expanded healthcare provisions, social distancing in stores, consistent and adequate PPE supplies, temperature checks and limiting customer density during store hours. This interview explores how the crisis has transformed the production process and the sharpened social relations escalating on the shop floor and beyond. We get a window into how gender dynamics play out within the state and management’s response to the pandemic both in the workplace and without, how the frontline against the virus is also the frontline of social frustration, how the production process can be stretched and responsive at some moments, while rigid and resistant in others – and how all of these moments and others together shape the lived experience of work in and under crisis. We invite those with labor stories during the pandemic to contact us at email@example.com.
Can you take me through a typical day and, maybe, what’s different on the shop floor?
Employee A: Well, before I can do anything for work, I have to get my kids situated for school and doing their homeschool stuff. Not only am I a florist, but I’m a mom and a teacher. I have an eleven-year old girl and six-year old that is autistic and has special needs. I really have my hands full. And, I’m down a paycheck, if I need to stay home with them. I’m lucky enough that my son gets to talk with his regular teacher, his special-ed teacher and his speech therapist all over video chat. All of that happens throughout the week through video chat and I’m on the phone, it feels like, twenty times a day. It takes a team, but we have a very good team.
Once I get to work, the first thing we do is grab a mask. My store has been able to get masks for everybody. But we’re lucky. We also wear bandanas if need be, because we have to improvise sometimes. But it could be a completely different situation tomorrow – where I have to work at multiple floral shops, one in Mesquite, one in De Soto and possibly a third store (I just found this out an hour ago). Ever since the pandemic, I’ve had to travel to go work at other stores because there are worker shortages at other locations, as employees get sick or become at risk. We’re also running between different stores sometimes to get product that we’ve run out of. So, for instance, I had to go use my car to go get meat for the meat market because we had none. I’m not getting paid any extra for this – for the mileage – just the regular paycheck. There are also weeks, since the pandemic started, where I’ve had to work six or seven days.
Employee B: I bake in the morning, so it’s a 3AM start. The grocery store can feel like it’s under siege. In the beginning, the supply of bread was hard to keep up with, though it’s calmed down since then. The extra work comes in when we bake things like the bagels. Instead of just putting them out, we have to bag and tag them; the bread we bake, each has to be taped closed as well – in other words, very time-consuming things. They’re always trying to get products out as quickly as possible. They’ve increased deliveries from our trucks and they’re now daily. We have to sanitize everything: doors, tables, the carts, any equipment we’re using – and that’s squeezed into the normal routine. I wish we were given more time to do that – but it gets done.
It seems quite common for frontline workers to be described as ‘heroes’ right now – what does this mean to you?
Employee A: I honestly don’t feel like a hero, because I don’t feel like I’m doing enough – if you understand that. For most of us, we love the praise, we don’t normally get it – we’re getting it now more than we ever have. But still for some of us all we’re doing is making sure people have food and the things that they need on a daily basis. We’re very grounded that way. We’re not going to walk around with Superman shirts on, saying “I’m a hero.”
Employee B: I don’t feel like a hero. I just feel like I’m going in and doing my job. It’s just another day. Is that weird? I’ve worked in the grocery stores for nine and a half years. So, it’s just another day in the grocery store – just now you have to be very vigilant. Before this happened, you heard, “Oh you work in a grocery story? Is that the only job you can get?” You got talked down to if you were a cashier or slicing the lunch meat. At least now, it’s a little bit more appreciated.
What sort of problems are you and your coworkers dealing with in the workplace?
Employee A: My big thing right now that I wish would be different is having customers respect us. We’re finding that this is a problem a lot. I had a lady tell me that I couldn’t touch her grocery bags because she thought I was ‘contaminated.’ We’re getting major backlash from customers and no one’s talking about. Customers think we’re contaminated because we’re here, putting ourselves at risk, making sure you have food on your table.
I’m one of the lucky ones with respect to having decent managers. There are other ones where management has said, “I don’t care if you’re running a fever – come to work.” The store that I came from before the one I’m working at right now, they had one employee who had tested positive and the management was making them work six, seven days a week with no days off. I have friends at other stores where management has shutdown the breakroom so that employees can’t go there. And there are multiple other stores, where they don’t have any protective equipment. The only reason our store had it was because management personally went and found it.
Employee B: We need management to make sure there’s soap in all the bathrooms. This week we were using a bottle of Dove dish soap – but the problem with that is that you have to pick it up. Why should we have to touch everything? I would like to see the automatic spigots or the soap dispenser that you simply put your hand under. Making sure the bathrooms are kept a little bit cleaner. Hours that are set for seniors-only need to be actually enforced.
I also wish customers were treating us differently and I wish management was dealing with it better. For example, there are limits on how much of an item can be sold to an individual person. A couple of weeks ago, there was a customer who wanted to buy twelve bottles of water and the cashier had to say, “I’m sorry, we have a new limit of three” and was then given a hard time. And at the end of the conversation, the customer threw a bottle of water at her [the cashier]. Management came and talked to the customer but did not ask him to leave and left the behavior unaddressed – it’s very upsetting. I also wish people were using the trash cans we have when they take off their gloves and masks – instead of throwing them in the parking lot because we have to pick them up. If you plan on bringing gloves and masks, you need a plan to dispose of them.
How long have you been with UFCW, and what’s the mood among coworkers?
Employee A: I’ve been with UFCW for six years. I was born into a Teamster family. My whole life has been union, and that’s where I feel like I belong. All of us think the only way we’re going to get through this is if we come together as a team and a family. If that means I go help somebody that I’m not too crazy about – I’m going to go help them. It’s given us more respect towards each other, if we didn’t already have it. We’re talking to each other constantly – we have earpieces on to keep us connected to everyone around the store. I’m the person people vent to. I’m also talking to workers at other stores, usually through text messages, Facebook or however.
Employee B: I’ve been with the union for nine and a half years. Before I moved to Texas, I was in another state and helped organize Kroger workers there. I wouldn’t work for Kroger without a union. Right now, in terms of the mood at work, you’re more vigilant and you’re a little more fearful. I think it’s actually sad when you go into work and are faced with potential exposure to the virus. You have to sanitize everything, and you’re afraid of who is going to come through the door. Some coworkers that normally say hello are just coming in and simply trying to get their job done. Normally, we don’t have any paid sick days. But now, they’re saying that if you have to stay home due to the virus, they’ll pay you for two weeks – which is more than they’ve ever done before. I am a shop steward and I make sure the new folks getting hired know that this came from the union lobbying the state government in the Capitol.