Midday at a Safeway in Northwest D.C. The union representing thousands of Safeway workers was locked in negotiations with the company less than a month ago over worker pensions and benefits.
"I don't even feel like I've had a break, or a breather," Jane St. Louis said as she got home from an eight-hour shift that began at 4:30 a.m. St. Louis has had shifts at a Safeway in Damascus, MD., every day for the last three weeks.
She's one of thousands of local Safeway and Giant employees who recently made the transition from one stressful season to another: In February and March, their union, UFCW Local 400, was locked in tough negotiations with their employers. They reached a tentative agreement with Giant on February 17 after more than five months of talks, and a tentative deal with Safeway came on March 5, less than 12 hours before a scheduled strike vote.
"I really felt that we were going to strike," said St. Louis, who has worked for Safeway for almost 28 years and was on the union's negotiating team. "I kept praying and saying everything was going to work out, but it was pretty scary."
Days after avoiding a strike, St. Louis and her fellow union members became frontline workers in a public health crisis, going through the busiest times they have seen in their grocery store careers.
"If we had went on strike, Safeway would have been up the creek without a paddle," said Michelle Lee, who works at a store in Alexandria. "They cannot run that store without us."
Grocery store workers have job security in a moment of economic collapse: Safeway, for example, is hiring for 1,000 immediate openings in Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and Delaware, as other local companies are having to lay off significant shares of their workforce.
Still, the work is grueling.
"We have people taking stuff off our pallets before we can even get it on our shelves," said St. Louis.
"The stores are war zones," said Jeffrey Reid, who works in the meat department at a Giant in Silver Spring. "You put the chicken out and before you even put it out, you know, people want to grab it ... They want any and everything in this particular moment in time."
Lee said she is ringing up twice as many customers as normal on any given day right now — and their orders are much larger than usual. On her breaks, Lee shops for elderly neighbors who call and text her asking for food and supplies.
"A lot of times people will look down on grocery workers as if we're not essential workers like doctors or lawyers or professional people," Lee said. "Now, a lot of customers have been ... thanking us. They've been appreciating us. A customer told us today ... we're more important than a lawyer right now. We're there to make sure that people feed their family, feed their children and buy the essential needs for their household."
St. Louis hopes this moment brings more appreciation for grocery store workers, but she's still disappointed by customers who get angry over the store's inability to keep certain items in stock. (Unusually high demand means that certain shelves are emptying out fast right now, but suppliers are working to keep up.)
"The majority of customers are nice, but you usually get one that knocks you down, and you have to pick yourself back up and keep going," St. Louis said.
Emptying meat shelves at a Safeway in Northwest D.C.
In response to the unusual demands on their employees, grocery store companies have put into place temporary enhancements to sick leave, worker protections and pay.
Safeway's parent company, Albertsons, recently announced it would be giving its store employees two dollars more an hour, at least until the end of this week. Giant is offering hourly workers in stores and distribution centers a 10% increase in pay until May 2. Both companies are installing plexiglass screens in high-traffic areas like pharmacies, cash registers and customer service desks. And both are offering 14 days of paid sick leave for employees who test positive for COVID-19.
Jonathan Williams, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, says the union is "continuing to push for more," including 14 days of paid sick leave for all employees without any condition that they test positive for the virus. (Congress recently passed a law requiring many employers to offer 14 days of paid sick leave for workers affected by the coronavirus, but many large grocery chains, including Giant and Safeway, are exempt from this requirement because they have more than 500 employees.)
Non-union competitors are also offering some enhanced benefits. A spokesperson for Trader Joe's told WAMU the company is offering two weeks of paid sick leave for store employees quarantined for or diagnosed with the coronavirus, along with seven additional days of paid sick leave for all employees. The company is also offering bonuses for its store employees, but it did not respond to a question about how much.
A group of employees who are trying to form a Trader Joe's union say the temporary bonus pool rolled out by the company is not a reasonable substitute for a bump in hourly wages, and the company's policies around protective equipment leave workers vulnerable.
The state attorneys general in D.C., Maryland and Virginia recently joined a group of officials calling Whole Foods sick leave policies "inadequate" and asking Jess Bezos to expand paid sick leave policies for employees at Amazon and sister company Whole Foods. Currently, Whole Foods workers who test positive or are in quarantine because of the coronavirus get two weeks of paid sick leave, but delivery drivers do not get the benefit.
For St. Louis, an extra two dollars an hour from Safeway "is not really worth the risk."
She lives in a house with her husband, daughter and granddaughter, and she's taking extra precautions to protect them from potential exposure to the coronavirus. She takes off her work clothes in the garage before she walks in the house, she wipes down every surface she touches and she tries to sequester herself to her bedroom.
"Everybody else who's in the house is still at risk, and that bothers me," she said.
But St. Louis shows up to the store every day because she's a self-described workaholic — and because she feels that her work matters.
"I have a responsibility," she said. "I take my job very serious."