Two weeks ago, it was doubtful that anyone working at a grocery story would consider themselves an emergency worker.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
However, amid the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, thousands of grocery store workers in Hudson County – and throughout the country – are now one of the economy’s most essential laborers, working to ensure residents can buy food as some part of the world come to a near standstill.
Yet the job comes with new anxiety, as social distancing becomes nearly impossible for workers on the cash register, for instance.
“This is a very difficult scenario; it’s uncharted waters. We haven’t been through this before and people just don’t know how to react,” said John T. Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of grocery store workers in the region.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Saturday ordered a near lock down for the entire state, mandating that non-essential retail business be closed until further notice.
Of course grocery stores were among a number of businesses deemed essential, along with pharmacies, gas stations, auto mechanics and repair services, convenience stores, banks, and liquor stores – among a few others.
For grocery store employees, that means taking extra precautions for their own health.
“You can’t just stop your life. You need money so you have to come to work,” said Josh, a 27-year-old employee at ACME in Jersey City who declined to give his last name. “But you still need to take precautions.”
Last week saw day after day of lines extending through stores, empty shelves a regularity and customers with masks and gloves in and out of the front door with great consistency.
While many fears haven’t been quelled yet, employees have taken comfort in a slow down this week.
“Last week it was hectic. But it looks like it could be getting back to normal,” Josh said. “Then again, I could be wrong because tomorrow it could be a sh*t storm.”
“It comes in spurts now,” said Valerie, an employee at the Hoboken ShopRite who also preferred not to give her last name.
She said she’s been working her usual hours, “but it’s been much harder” recently.
Companies like ShopRite and ACME have provided their workers with gloves and hand sanitizer, employees from both stores said.
The companies have “been very, very cooperative and accommodating during this pandemic,” Niccollai said.
“Obviously the health and safety of our associates and customers is our number one priority,” said Dana Ward, a communications manager with ACME.
ACME and similar stores say they are following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines: not recommending gloves and masks for employees but having them available for anyone who ask for them.
“We have an abundance of gloves; gloves are not a problem,” Ward said. “Masks obviously are harder to come by.”
These items are facing a surge in global demand, and many hospitals and health care facilities – let alone grocery stores – are having trouble getting the amount they need.
“The problem that we really have is none of us, the employers, the union, our medical centers — we can’t get the supplies that we need and that’s really been the biggest problem,” Niccollai stated.
“Many of our members would like to work with gloves, masks and have protective devices around the cash registers up front, and obviously the employers are trying to provide all that, but you can’t buy them. We can’t even get masks for our medical center.”
To ensure additional protection, Ward said ACME had installed plexiglass on the cash registers, as “a huge sneeze guard, so to speak,” Ward said.
Niccollai is telling his union members to wash their hands frequently and sanitize as best they can. But another problem – again, one that the entire country is facing – is a shortage of available tests.
“We have members through our medical center that we suspect could have the coronavirus, and we can’t get them tested – they’ve gone to the testing center in Bergen County … and have been in line for several hours and then they indicate they’ve run out of tests,” he said.
“So what we are doing is very interesting. We’re swabbing them for the flu, and if they have all of the symptoms of the coronavirus and they test negatively for the flu, there’s a good probability that they have the coronavirus.”
From there, he said, members are given a prescription to take to a hospital to get tested their.
“But again, not all hospitals have tests,” he said.
For now, as the virus spread continues in the New York metropolitan region – largely considered the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak – employees are taking it day by day.
“They understand they have a job and they have to be there but they also have obligations to themselves and their families to work smartly and to work safely,” Niccollai said.
“We’re just trying to stay positive right now,” Josh said.
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_