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Markings on the ground outside Whole Foods tell shoppers how far apart to stand to properly socially distance while standing in line to get into the market. (Duncan Baumgarten/Emerald)

When Kaylynn Wohl comes home from work at Whole Foods Market, she takes off the mask she’s worn for eight hours. Even after she’s taken it off, she said, she can still feel it on her face.

Essential workers across the country continue to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared grocery stores essential businesses on March 16 when other businesses were forced to close. Now, Eugene grocery workers cope with increased cleaning regiments, social distancing responsibilities and stress associated with working in vulnerable conditions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration collects safety complaints from workers across the country. From March 2 to April 5, Oregon OSHA received over 1,200 complaints relating to the coronavirus, according to OSHA records. Around 70 came from Eugene, and 10 of those complaints came from grocery stores, according to OSHA records.

At least 41 grocery workers in the United States have died from COVID-19, the Washington Post reported on April 12.

Many grocery stores are represented by labor unions. United Food and Commercial Workers 555 is a labor union for Oregon and Southwest Washington. It represents around 25,000 workers in stores like Safeway, Albertson’s and Fred Meyer, as well as some healthcare workers, like Kaiser Permanente, and some manufacturing workers, according to its website.

Dan Clay, the president of UFCW 555, said many of the complaints the union received were related to employers not allowing workers to wear masks. 

“The biggest problem to start off with was concern over customers being uncomfortable if they saw somebody wearing a mask,” Clay said, a conversation that shifted when the union became involved.  Workers asked for glass barriers between cashiers and customers, as well, he said.

“So, at this point, we’re getting a lot of calls from folks who are immunocompromised and don’t know what the best way to handle that is, considering they need to work,” Clay said. “And so we’ve been spending a lot of time helping them through that.”

Clay said one of the union’s main focuses right now is an Oregon law that allows employers to challenge where a worker received an injury or illness. The standard, ORS 656.266, makes sense for slip and fall injuries or broken bones, he said in an email. That’s now been extended to challenging workers whether they contracted COVID-19 at work, or somewhere else, Clay said. 

“They get declared essential by the government, they have to come into work, they have to take care of the community. They’re very literally risking their lives,” Clay said. “And, if they get the virus, under current law, employers can challenge whether or not this is a workplace infection or workplace injury.”

The law states, “The worker cannot carry the burden of proving that an injury or occupational disease is compensable merely by disproving other possible explanations of how the injury or disease occurred.”

In other words, Clay said via email, workers cannot argue that they could not have gotten sick anywhere else because “the law was designed to tilt to employers and wasn’t designed to deal with viruses.”

Many essential workers don’t have health insurance, Clay said. Some employers still aren’t providing personal protective equipment. 

There is no priority testing for essential workers, he said. “So, the virus hit,” he said. “And the governor declared retail workers to be essential employees. And since that time, what we’ve found is that our folks are getting treated more like they’re disposable than they’re essential. And that’s a real problem.” 

Wohl has worked for Whole Foods Market for two years as a checker. Her work life has changed dramatically, she said. 

Workers don’t enter through the front door anymore, she said, but through a separate entrance. Temperatures are taken before anyone can clock in for the day, she said. Staff can’t work if they exhibit any symptoms, she said. All hourly staff at Whole Foods Market receive an additional $2 an hour.

Once she’s inside, she would usually start working at a register, she said. That’s changed, too. Now, for social distancing reasons, she said, fewer registers are open at any given time. 

Yellow stickers on the store floor indicate how shoppers should stand in line, reminding them to practice social distancing. Wohl said that customers will sometimes get frustrated with her when she reminds them to step back. 

“Some people act like they don’t get it,” she said.

She has regular customers who, before COVID-19, would have stopped to talk with her. “I can tell they want to have a conversation,” Wohl said, “but there’s also that pressure of time because people are waiting.”

Because of the mask Wohl wears and the clear glass barrier between her and the customers, she said she has to talk louder in order to be heard. “It’s harder to conduct a conversation with a piece of fabric on your face,” Wohl said.

Some of Wohl’s coworkers are frustrated with Whole Foods Market’s upper management, she said. “For me personally, the first day the CDC recommended wearing masks, they weren’t providing anyone masks,” she said. Wohl said she refused to work if she couldn’t wear one. 

“Effective April 13,” according to a Whole Foods Market spokesperson, “we are requiring all Whole Foods Market team members and Prime Now Shoppers across our store and facilities to wear a mask throughout the entirety of their shift.”

There are two different types of grocery workers, right now, Clay said. “There’s somebody who says, ‘I’m doing this for my community, and I don’t like it, but I’m gonna do it.’ That’s the kind of ‘these people are heroes’ kind of concept, which I think is valid. Then, you’ve got another group that says, ‘Look, I don’t have a choice. I don’t have a choice whether I do it or not.’”

An agreement stands between UFCW 555 and major employers that, even if they are asked to quarantine, an employee will still have a job upon returning. Clay said. “We’ve negotiated extra paid leave, so that folks could, even if they didn’t have a lot of sick leave on the books, or anything like that, that they could still have time to be home.”

Market of Choice felt an impact by COVID-19 after being designated an essential business, said Amy Delaney, manager of customer experiences. 

Supply chains have been severely affected, which influences the company’s marketing, Delaney said. “The supply chain is so unpredictable right now, it’s difficult to run ads for products, if we don’t know when — or if — it gets in,” she said.

Foot traffic has shifted, too. A lot of stores are near schools, Delaney said, and with recent shutdowns, there isn’t the same lunch rush of students that the stores usually see. “We see a lot of traffic in the morning,” she said, “when the stores are the most stocked and the cleanest.”

The stores have a dedicated vulnerable shopping hour, Delaney said, for shoppers with compromised immune systems, those who are pregnant or those who are 60 and older. “There’s lots of shoppers then,” she said.

Market of Choice closed many of the self services options. Each store has a sanitization backpack, Delaney said, to spray down carts for customers. 

Whole Foods Market also requires staff to sanitize shopping carts, Wohl said. “Even if someone picks up a basket and they accidentally take two, they have to sanitize the second one,” Wohl said.

Delaney said that Market of Choice has been very supportive of employees staying home if they feel sick, without fear of losing their jobs. All hourly workers at Market of Choice receive an additional $2 per hour, she said

Part of Delaney’s role is employee experience. She said that morale is really high among workers at Market of Choice since customers and corporate leadership express their appreciation for the employees. “It’s hard to have customers complain about steps we’re taking or not taking, or not respecting social distancing,” Delaney said.

“We’re all in this together, and one of the best ways to get through it is to be kind,” she said

Wohl is worried about getting sick, she said. “There’s, like, videos going around on Facebook about germs being spread through grocery stores,” she said, “I know for a fact I’ve touched a lot of things.” 

Her co-workers are scared about the people they live with getting sick, too, she said. “If someone gets sick, you have to stay home for the two weeks,” she said, “but you can’t afford that.”

Duncan is an associate news editor for the Daily Emerald. Previously, he was the crime reporter. He likes buying books he'll never read, true crime and Superman.