People who work with food and the public already know quite a bit about disease. Many of the measures recommended by the World Health Organization are second nature to food workers. Cleaning hands, cleaning surfaces, avoiding face touching, are status quo practices for food workers. Perhaps, even more important, these workers understand themselves not only as potential victims of viruses but also potential carriers. When you work with food and the public, your worst fear usually isn’t getting sick – it’s making somebody else sick. Spreading rather than catching a disease is our nightmare.
But this powerful and pandemic-appropriate understanding of contagion is often ignored by management and its best practices are often undercut by cost-saving measures.
When cuts are made to staff, when someone is overworked, the first things to suffer are health and safety. People stop cleaning in the way they should be cleaning. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to clean when you have customers waiting. Workers start taking risks. They carry too much weight, move too fast, and maybe leave slippery spots on the floor unattended. These problems are created by starvation wages and a workplace culture that stops people from calling in sick.
When I worked in the meat department of Ralph’s, the store director would often come by to complain that we were using too many gloves. These gloves are single use. They are supposed to changed –according to the store’s own stated policy, the directions on the box, and EVEN THEIR NAME– every single time you’re about to touch a different sort of meat. They should be changed when you move from one task to another. That’s why they’re called “single use gloves.” This what we were told to do but we were only told this on paper. In reality, we were shouted at by our boss for using these gloves. Why? Because the company wanted to save money on supplies.
It was my understanding that management receives bonuses based on the profitability of their stores. The fastest way for them to make money is to save money. The fastest way for them to save money is by cutting hours and reducing the use of supplies. We often did not have enough garage bags to change the garbage in the parking lot. We were not given the equipment –the gloves– we needed to change these bags. After being so badly outfitted by the store, we were then told to return to working with food. This would happen with no easy access to hand-washing facilities and under a lot of pressure to be fast.
I want you to look at this.
This is the equipment we were given to change the fryers and throw out the old grease. We had to scrape that grease out of those buckets using a piece of cardboard ripped from a nearby box. We had no scoop. Then we had to rinse the grease out of those buckets and scrub them clean with paper towels. If any of this grease ended up on the floor, we were warned that this was “a fireable offence.” This store is part of a multi-billion dollar operation. And here we were, scrounging around with pieces of cardboard to clean fryers.
I point this out not to bring attention to this specific practice. (Indeed, by the time I left, the fryer system had finally been updated.) Instead, I want to use this problem to point out a pattern of behavior from management — a pattern that has not been fixed.
Workers are not given the equipment, training or time they need to perform their jobs in a safe or responsible way. We are forced to sign papers where we promise to perform a series of cleaning tasks yet we are sometimes outrightly forbidden from performing these tasks. Most often, these tasks are, de facto, impossible to perform. If we fall short, if a mistake is made, if something bad happens, the company has covered its ass. Neither it nor its cost-saving policies are ever held accountable. The worker is blamed.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, this is an especially worrying pattern but it is a longstanding one. During our union’s last contract negotiations with management, our union, for the first time in its history, brought in some rank and file workers. I was honored to be one of these workers. Our job was to tell these corporate lawyers about problems as we saw them.
One of the workers who was also brought in was sick. She had a cold. I told management”s lawyers that she was there –even though she was sick– because we were all used to working sick. To us, working sick had become normal. I told them that our sick days were theoretical. Our wages were too low. No one could afford to call in. Our jobs were precarious. Many of us could not afford to lose a single shift. We were always on skeleton crews. We were always so understaffed that calling in sick meant that we were letting down our co-workers. None of us wanted to make more work for our fellow workers. We all knew that even one person being sick could be catastrophic for our co-workers and friends. We wanted to do our bit. Not so much for the company but for each other. No one wanted to be sick. Chronic under-staffing had developed a culture at odds with health and safety.
Adding to this, if anyone did call in sick, we always met with opposition from management. Sometimes this was retaliation in the form of threats and cut hours. Although I very rarely took a sick day, having almost perfect attendance and punctuality, I had been personally threatened when I took a sick day and told by the store director that I needed to produce a doctor’s note. (I was not alone — this store director, who won manager of the year or some such thing, always did this. It was his standard practice and it’s not even true. One does not have to produce a note unless they are sick for three days in a row.)
I sat there and I told management’s lawyers that these practices were putting our customers at risk of infection. If we make a customer sick, I warned, we not only hurt the customer but the business. People who get sick from a store do not return to that store. Yet we were being forced to work sick every day. Working sick was expected. Working sick was standard.
Do you want to know what management’s corporate lawyers did about that? Do you want to know their response?
They smiled and they thanked us and they waited for us to leave. Then they demanded that the room be disinfected. That was their response. That was all they did. They decided to ignore the health of their workers and the health of their customers. But they certainly looked after themselves.
So, if any of this gets spread through grocery stores, through Kroger, Vons, Alberston’s or anything under the umbrella of Cerebus, and any of those companies, at any point, claims ignorance about how their policies helped create that mess. If they try to blame an employee, you should know that they knew the risks. I know they know because I told them. Their lawyers took notes. They know the risk. They decided it’s acceptable. For you, that is. For them? Disinfectant if they even briefly share a room with worker.
Livable wages, enough hours, workers rights, and adequate staffing are public health issues. And they’re almost as important as healthcare.
But those solutions seem distant. So what can we do, right now? What can you do if you work in a place like this? What can you do if you’re a customer?
There are some things that every food company should be doing right now — some things that they should have started long ago, and a lot of things they should definitely have started doing in the past few weeks. Every store should have a lot of extra staff. There should be a lot of focus on cleaning surfaces. You should all be wearing gloves and you should change these gloves regularly. The main surfaces on the registers should be getting cleaned constantly as should the touch screens at the self-checkouts. At least one person should be constantly working to keep the restrooms clean. And you need extra people to do that. The company needs to supply those people. Furthermore, the company should have a clear plan to support its sick workers.
If you’re a customer, you should contact the managers of these stores and tell them this. Now, they don’t care about you much more than they care about their workers, but they still need to hear this and they need to hear it from you. If they hear it enough, it might help.
We know that these are not changes that any company wants to make. It costs money.
As a worker, you may not have the power you need to make them do it. But, if you have a union, there are steps you can take right now. These steps might help to cover your ass. Delegations can be sent to management asking for these things — more staff, better supplies, and a clear plan to support workers who get sick. If anyone gets sick at one of these stores, we already know who the bosses will try to blame. They will try to blame you.
Don’t make that easy for them. Get your concerns on the record and do it quickly.
And do you need help with making a delegation? Labor Notes is a great place to get advice and, for the quick and dirty version, there’s The Grumpy Owl Guide to Making a Delegation to the Boss. I wish you all luck.
One Last Thing
We all have relationships with our customers. Quite often, people find out about community news through us. We’re not only vectors for disease but also for information.
As such, food and service workers have a special duty here. We have to resist scapegoating, racism, and xenophobia. None of these things help. Scapegoating is particularly bad. What happens is one group gets blamed, they shift blame onto another group, and so on and so forth. It’s never-ending.
Scapegoating does nothing to help anyone and it hurts a lot of people. Remember that tomorrow you will have to face the people you pointed the finger at today. You don’t need to be a hero but you need to remain decent. You want to get through this with your self-respect.
I hope that the knowledge and experience you all have –the deep understanding of yourself not only as possible victims of disease but also as potential carriers of disease– is reflected by an understanding of yourselves as carriers of information and misinformation. Be responsible with your words. Stick to what you know. When you hear people blaming an ethnic or racial group for this virus, you need to resist that bullshit. Raise your voice. Object.
Don’t spread rumors. Don’t panic. Don’t make people any more afraid than they already are! Stick to the basics of what you can do. Hygiene!
We’re all in this together and we can only get through it together.