Grocery workers were called heroes for months during the pandemic, with few actual protections. Now they're finally seeing small but important gains.

  • Retail workers have been touted as frontline heroes throughout the pandemic, by companies and the public alike.
  • Protections for retail employees remain weak in the United States, and many workers and labor activists have called for companies to do more.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did recently vote to recommend that grocery workers receive priority vaccinations, however.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like retail workers might ascend to the role of societal "heroes," taking on a designation usually reserved for military personnel, firefighters, and medical professionals in the United States.

Employees working on the frontlines of stores faced disease and death in order to keep the "open for business" signs blazing for consumers desperate to access essential goods. And it seemed like the public and private sector alike were beginning to appreciate that.

Major companies like Walmart and Amazon released advertisements touting their workers' resoluteness and bravery in the face of COVID-19. Those same national retailers also began to dole out bonuses during the pandemic. Retail workers even got their own action figures. As part of its "everyday hero" line of dolls, Mattel released a toy grocery store employee. 

For many months, none of that adulation has resulted in much political headway for workers. In recent days, however, retail employees have seen a few key wins. 

As vaccine distribution has begun, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel voted last week to recommend that "frontline essential workers" should be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine after elderly individuals.

"For purposes of this recommendation, the following essential workers are considered frontline: fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, those who work in the education sector (teachers, and support staff), as well as daycare workers," according to the CDC recommendations. 

In Congress, there's also been positive news for retail workers.

United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had long pushed for a provision to the stimulus bill that would strip consumers and employees of the ability to bring coronavirus-related lawsuits against companies. Retailers who funded McConnell and lobbied legislators to protect companies in this election cycle include Walmart, CVS, Publix, as well as trade groups like the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Grocers Association, according to previous Business Insider reporting. But ultimately that provision has been cut from the  relief package. That relief package is now in limbo as Trump is demanding an increase in direct payments from $600 to $2,000.

Remington Gregg, a lawyer for the consumer-rights group Public Citizen, said that the passage of the stimulus package without the liability proposal was a "major win for workers," but the fact that it was up for debate at all is indicative of a system stacked against working Americans. 

The stimulus package also includes an extension of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was initially due to expire on December 31. This act states that employees of covered employers can get up to two weeks of paid sick leave if "the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined (pursuant to Federal, State, or local government order or advice of a health care provider), and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis" and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave.

But there are loopholes in the Families First coverage. Employers with over 500 employees and those with less than 50 employees can find exemptions to the paid leave covered in this act. Meanwhile, many retail employers continue to foster risky environments.

A 2020 workplace safety survey from hazardous waste disposal compliance company Stericycle found that 24% of retail employers have not even implemented workplace training around COVID-19 safety. Meanwhile, a third of retail workers said they'd been asked to bring their own personal protective equipment to work. A sweep of local news outlets across the country reveals that retailers have come under fire for safety violations during the pandemic, with some even allegedly firing workers for reporting problems

Gregg said that it's "all well and good" for companies to market off their workers' heroics. "But I think those heroes would prefer to have paid sick leave, higher minimum wage, and actually have their employers treat them with dignity," he said. 

And while pandemic bonuses may provide workers with more cash support during the pandemic, labor rights organizations like United for Respect say it's too little too late. United for Respect calculated Walmart's bonus amounts from the start of the pandemic and found that it came out to a raise of $0.71 per hour.

Walmart employee and United for Respect member Mendy Hughes said that her store fails to adequately enforce mask-wearing or stock hand sanitizer at checkout. 

A Walmart spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has required face coverings for all shoppers since July, and employees since April. The company also noted its next cash bonus would roll out on December 24, which would bring Walmart's total 2020 quarterly and special cash bonuses for employees to more than $2.8 billion, the spokesperson said. 

Walmart also offers its own COVID emergency leave policy with paid time off for sickness or quarantine and the potential for additional "pay replacement" for up to 26 weeks. 

But leave policies are varied across the retail landscape. 

For example, at Costco, the big box employer has ramped up pay for its frontline workers but has not yet universally extended leave time. Business Insider previously reported that the company did quietly give some older employees two weeks of extra paid leave during the pandemic.

"The extra $2 per hour worked is nice, but I'd much rather have more personal and sick time," a Minnesota Costco employee who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider. 

Costco didn't reply to Business Insider's request for comment. 

"Sometimes a person needs a break from having members complain about items being in short supply, and beyond that the mental stress," the employee said. "And what happens when we get a head cold and stay home 'just in case'?"

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