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When she's not at work, Fred Meyer employee Melody Gramley loves spending time with her young grandson. But Gramley, who works at a store in Salem, has been unable to see him for two weeks.

That's because her grandson was born with a weakened immune system, making him particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Gramley fears the lax safety precautions at her workplace could make her a carrier for the virus. She's not willing to risk accidentally transmitting the disease to her grandson.

“If you were to go into Fred Meyer at any point, you would see that a lot of the customers have no regard for the six-foot [social distancing] rule,” Gramley told the Mercury. “A lot of them don’t really care.”

While many Oregonians have the luxury of working from home, or have been laid off because they worked at non-essential businesses that closed under Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order, grocery workers continue to show up for work. Faced with crowded stores, questionable safety conditions, and protective gear shortages, some of these workers are demanding more from their companies, and from the state government.

Gramley is also an officer with United Food and Grocery Workers Local 555, which represents Fred Meyer and Safeway workers in Oregon. On a press conference call with local labor leaders and Brown yesterday, Gramley called for grocery store workers to be prioritized for COVID-19 testing—a still-limited resource in Oregon. She later told the Mercury that she sees this ask as a protective measure for both grocery workers and the public. One Portland Fred Meyer employee tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.

“We have to go to work every day,” she said. “Seeing as some of the public does not adhere to the guidelines while we’re fighting through this pandemic—the employees could end up as carriers, or end up actually getting sick from COVID.”

Gramley, who said she also has a compromised immune system, wears a cloth mask that a coworker gave her during each work shift. Cloth masks aren’t as effective as the N95 medical masks that are in short supply nationwide, but it’s one of the few protections she has. She’s also expecting to see plexiglass barriers added to protect cash register workers soon.

Until recently, Gramley’s job was to help customers sign up for Fred Meyer credit cards, but she’s been reassigned to fill curbside pickup orders because of high demand. Every time she picks up items on a customer’s list, Gramley said she wonders, “How many times over have those products been touched by someone before us?”

“If you think about all the people who touch your food—are you paying them enough to think about all the safety practices that should be going into the food they’re preparing for you?” — Portland Whole Foods worker

Fred Meyer workers aren't the only ones worrying about packed stores and unhealthy conditions. Employees at Zupan’s, a small gourmet grocery chain in Portland, started an online petition last week calling for stricter social distancing rules in the stores. Their demands include a capacity cap of 35 customers at a time, $2 per hour hazard pay wage raises, and a fully enforced six-foot-distance rule for customers and employees. A capacity cap is already in place at New Seasons Markets, and employees at New Seasons, Whole Foods and Market of Choice have received temporary increased wages.

“They’re small stores to begin with, so the employees are working within close quarters of each other,” said one Zupan’s employee, who asked to be kept anonymous so they wouldn’t be disciplined at work. “They aren’t even limiting the number of people in the store, or the six-foot distance, or any of that, and they definitely aren’t giving hazard pay.”

In a response to their demands, owner Mark Zupan sent an email telling employees they would be receiving store gift cards in place of hazard pay, and that the stores would be upping their sanitation practices and using new work schedules to help employees maintain a proper distance between each other.

“Our priority is, and always will be, the health and safety of you our associates and our customers,” Zupan wrote. “We are working hard to ensure that you have the tools needed to do your job safely and effectively.”

Zupan’s employees say the new measure are a good start, but don’t go far enough.

A near-empty bread aisle at a local Whole Foods grocery store.
A near-empty bread aisle at a local Whole Foods grocery store. courtesy of an anonymous Whole Foods worker

Whole Foods workers in Portland and across the country also have demands for their owners. Many workers at the grocery chain are participating in a strike on Tuesday, following a Monday strike at Amazon, Whole Foods' parent company. Whole Foods recently put tighter capacity limits on stores, and gave workers $2 an hour raises through April. But striking workers also want paid leave for employees quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic, free COVID-19 testing for all workers, and hazard pay that is double their current wages.

The Mercury spoke with one Whole Foods worker who also asked to be kept anonymous. They said they already have the day off on Tuesday, but would be staying home as part of the strike even if they were on the schedule. They said that they hope the COVID-19 crisis will prompt people to think about how little grocery workers are paid, despite being essential workers during the pandemic. The employee said they earn $15.50 an hour without hazard pay, and pointed out that that’s already relatively high for entry-level grocery workers.

“If you think about all the people who touch your food—are you paying them enough to think about all the safety practices that should be going into the food they’re preparing for you?” they said.

The Whole Foods worker said that before their store adopted a new 40-person limit, it was packed with people franticly purchasing toilet paper, pasta, and canned goods.

“It feels a little bit like a holiday, when everyone’s in the store—except really not fun,” they said. “Some people are really nice, saying ‘Thank you for being here.’ And then there are so many people who are very unfriendly… They don’t want to wait in a line, they’re mad we’re out of things.”

They said they see working at a grocery store as “a really double-edged sword right now.”

“On the one hand, it is nice it has job security, [because] a ton of different people I know are unemployed right now,” they said. “And then on the other hand, it is really scary to have to go into work every day when you read the news that says you should stay inside, and it’s not just older people who are being hospitalized. It’s very scary.”