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A woman wearing a blue mask stands in the center of an aisle with a shopping cart.
A shopper wearing a mask inside a Fred Meyer location in the Pacific Northwest. Fred Meyer, like all Oregon grocery stores, has to enforce mask wearing within its aisles to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Colleen Michaels / Shutterstock

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Grocery Workers Are Still Dealing with Customer Confrontations Over Masks, More Than a Year Into the Pandemic

For many workers, a year of being expected to bear much of the responsibility for conflict de-escalation has taken its toll

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Four days a week, Al Kasper parks his car as close to the employee entrance of a Happy Valley, Oregon, Fred Meyer as he can, steps inside, and slips behind the relative safety of the unprotected deli counter. “If I parked farther out in the lot at night, there would be a higher chance of something happening,” Kasper says. He’s had customers threaten to fight his fellow coworkers over minor cashiering errors and requests to follow store policies, and he doesn’t want to take any chances if someone comes to the store looking to cause harm.

Kasper says customers have come behind the deli counter and refused to leave, asked him to take his mask off so they could hear him better, and removed their own masks to eat food in the store. The collective weight of frequent incidents and disrespect has left Kasper “legitimately frightened” in his own workplace, he says. “I don’t want to get my ass kicked in the parking lot.”

Management has been little help, according to Kasper. Store managers, he says, often cite safety and liability concerns when asked about confronting shoppers who aren’t masked or who come behind the deli counter. As a result, Kasper feels he can’t enforce his own safety in a meaningful way. That working environment, combined with $13.25 starting wage — the Portland area’s minimum — has produced such a high turnover rate that Kasper has, at times, been told to cover a department solo with little to no training.

Since March 2020, when states across the country shut down to prevent community spread of COVID-19, grocery workers have been on the front lines, risking their lives to provide food and supplies to the public. But those thousands of grocery employees who kept working throughout the pandemic became major enforcers of government-mandated restrictions, putting their own safety and well-being at risk. Oregon grocery workers have been repeatedly put in harmful situations for simply trying to get people to follow the state’s mask and social distancing mandates. This ongoing vitriol from aggressive customers, experienced by grocery workers not just in Portland but around the country, is causing a mental health crisis among store clerks, even as many start to receive their vaccines.

Now that the Oregon Health Authority is coming up with guidance to allow vaccinated individuals to freely shop maskless within businesses, some grocery workers are nervous about even more confrontations and how vaccine-free individuals may slip through the cracks. Many of them feel stuck between two difficult choices: avoid confronting a customer out of a fear of getting sick, or confront a customer and risk getting hurt or even fired.

Customers stand on red dots on the sidewalk outside a grocery store, waiting to enter.
Customers wait outside a New Seasons location to accommodate capacity limits. New Seasons has relaxed some of its COVID-19 protocols as more Oregonians get vaccinated.
Hrach Hovhannisyan / Shutterstock

In a July 1 press conference, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown stated that frontline workers are responsible for enforcement of the state’s mask mandate, and that businesses should attempt to “de-escalate” interactions with aggravated customers. If they need assistance with mask mandates, she said, businesses should call Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration instead of involving police. But OSHA doesn’t respond to emergency calls; it offers on-site training and investigates ongoing safety violations. “I’m calling upon our businesses to step up and help ensure that the public and their employees are protected,” Brown said.

That individual responsibility for enforcement has led to many confrontations between customers and workers, and according to several grocery workers in the Portland area who spoke with Eater, those grocery chains have left those employees to deal with noncompliant customers themselves. A public records request by Willamette Week last summer found 449 Oregon OSHA complaints lodged against grocery stores between mid-March 2020 and July 2020, with complaints ranging from cashiers working while sick to customers failing to observe social distancing protocols. The reported complaints matched Kasper’s experience working as a deli clerk at Fred Meyer. “There’s no way for us to actually enforce masks,” Kasper says, citing short staffing. “We make sure [you] have one when you come in, but we can’t do a whole lot about it once you’re in.” A Fred Meyer spokesperson told Eater that employees are directed to call a manager if they see a customer without a mask on. But in Kasper’s experience, he says when managers are called they’re frequently not willing to address the customer directly.

Kasper and Tuesday Faust, an employee of a Southeast Portland New Seasons, both noted that customers often try to “trick” workers by wearing a mask while entering the store and then discarding it or pulling it down once they’re inside. “I’ve had to chase people through the store and say, ‘that’s not the right kind of mask,’” Faust says. Other common offenses include bandanas that don’t fully cover the nose and mouth.

As a result of frustration and a sense of futility among workers and managers, many stores have adopted unspoken — and sometimes public — policies surrounding customers who openly flout COVID-19 safety protocols: Leave them be and hope they don’t have COVID-19. Pandora DeSpain, who worked at a Bethany QFC in 2020, says she was told to allow a customer without a mask to use the self-checkout. In one OSHA complaint, a shopper at the Stadium Fred Meyer in the Portland metro area claimed that a manager refused to confront an unmasked shopper out of fear of confrontation.

That fear is not unfounded: Grocery workers and other service workers across the country have been victims of violent altercations with customers over masking and other pandemic policies. A security guard at a Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, was shot in the back of the head in August 2020 after refusing service to a family for not wearing masks. In May 2020, a person shot a Waffle House employee in Colorado after being asked multiple times to wear a mask. Last July, a Trader Joe’s worker in New York City was hit with a wooden paddle after asking a pair of customers to leave or wear masks. “We have had numerous examples where a customer has engaged with one of our members,” Dan Clay, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, told OPB. “And in some cases, they pulled off their masks and spit at them because of their anger over being even asked to wear a mask.”

For many workers, a year of being expected to bear much of the responsibility for conflict de-escalation — on top of performing their regular duties during a deadly pandemic — has taken its toll. In a study conducted by the University of Arizona in 2020, 20 percent of the nearly 4,000 Arizona frontline workers surveyed reported “severe levels of mental health distress” during the first wave of the pandemic. Fifty-five percent of participants said they expected they would be verbally threatened by an angry customer while working.

Brian Mayer, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Sociology and lead author of the study, says the results show that inadequate training and resources, combined with negative customer interactions, have contributed to severe signs of anxiety and depression in frontline workers in Arizona. His team repeated the survey again in February within the same pool of workers. They found that the percentage of frontline workers who felt unsafe at work stayed at about 40 percent. Indicators of severe mental health distress stayed the same as well.

Other studies have found a correlation between the inability to maintain social distancing and mental health in frontline workers, as well as increases in mental distress among grocery workers and other frontline workers, similar to Mayer’s study findings. The results show that grocery workers across the nation are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental stress as a result of the pandemic, and that working conditions have a direct impact on a worker’s overall mental health.

From the outside, negative interactions with customers can seem like an annoyance, but the daily lack of respect and refusal to adhere to protocol only compounds the real fears that grocery workers have about their safety. Workers say customers don’t seem to notice when they enter a worker’s space even as they give generous space to fellow shoppers. “If you’re in an apron you’re kind of invisible. People will just brush up right against you,” Faust says. “It’s like you don’t exist.” Apart from the heightened risk posed by repeated close contact with customers indoors, these breaches of protocols leave grocery workers feeling disrespected or unnoticed by shoppers.

This lack of respect is compounded when stores refuse to adequately enforce COVID-19 protocols. On multiple occasions, DeSpain says, store managers have provided service to customers without masks. Such interactions are even more common when store staff are too overwhelmed to effectively enforce restrictions, such as during the holidays when stores without enforced occupancy restrictions are swarmed with shoppers. DeSpain says the crowding in her store during the holidays was one of the main reasons she quit in 2020; she’s currently focusing on finishing school and not working.

Unlike stores that manually track customer numbers through head counts, Kroger stores like QFC and Fred Meyer use an electronic monitoring system called QueVision that tracks customer density in a store using infrared scanners and cameras. The system was originally rolled out to speed checkout times at Kroger stores and was retooled in April 2020 to assist in social distancing measures. Kroger stated in a press release during the system’s update that QueVision would be used to limit store capacity to 50 percent of maximum occupancy.

According to a spokesperson for Fred Meyer, the system can alert managers so they can “respond to any issues related to capacity limits.” The idea is that when customer traffic increases, QueVision’s yellow alert will allow managers to close entrances and have people wait outside. But multiple workers report that they never saw capacity restricted at their stores, and that their location’s holiday traffic was well above average. Kasper says traffic at his store was so high after a winter storm in February that every employee in the deli department was told to work as a cashier with no prior training.

Some stores upheld relatively strict masking and distancing protocols early on, but have since relaxed their procedures as the pandemic wanes and vaccines are distributed. New Seasons doubled its occupancy limits in February, from 25 percent of building maximum to 50 percent. A spokesperson for New Seasons says the decision was based on the Oregon Health Authority’s sector risk guidance. Such relaxed restrictions came even as cases increased in Multnomah County and in the state as a whole. After a peak in April, cases and hospitalizations have slightly decreased, but new virus variants continue to threaten Oregon’s reopening progress.

Shopping At Trader Joe’s In New York City
Customers shop inside a Trader Joe’s location, wearing masks.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The biggest hope, for many of these workers, was a potential vaccine; when the vaccine did start to arrive in Oregon this year, grocery workers were originally slated to receive it in May — behind teachers, seniors, and other frontline workers on the priority list. But after over a month of grocery advocates calling for Kate Brown to follow Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s lead and prioritize frontline workers in the vaccine rollout, the governor accelerated restaurant and grocery workers eligibility for vaccines, prioritizing them in early April.

Two weeks later, the vaccine was opened to every Oregonian over age 16. The massive increase in people looking to schedule an appointment crashed vaccine scheduling websites and caused a scramble for available appointments and doses. Although 1.5 million Oregonians have received at least one shot, grocery workers continue to work alongside the public even as frontliners scramble to get vaccinated. For the period where vaccines appointments were scarce, there appears to have been little corporate support for workers looking to get vaccinated. A spokesperson for New Seasons says the company will start offering vaccinations at their support office for workers who were unable to find an appointment by Tuesday, May 11. The Oregon Convention Center started offering walk-in vaccinations on Friday, May 7.

Many grocery workers have successfully scheduled appointments, and have tried to avoid working on the day of and after their second dose, when some vaccine recipients experience side effects like fatigue and nausea. At New Seasons, workers who submit proof of vaccination receive four hours of paid time off to use during recovery. At Fred Meyer, workers don’t receive any extra paid time off, but they can submit vaccine documentation in exchange for a $100 Fred Meyer gift card.

Yet, getting the vaccine — although a relief for many workers — doesn’t necessarily mean a full transition back to pre-pandemic working conditions. Vaccination rates are still not at levels necessary for herd immunity, with under 60 percent of Oregonians vaccinated as opposed to the suggested 75 to 80 percent; plus, the U.S. may never reach that threshold. Meanwhile, vaccine hesitancy threatens the fragile progress that’s already been made to contain the virus. Grocery workers also worry that COVID-deniers and vaccine skeptics will become more aggressive — or lie outright — and refuse safety measures as the general public gets vaccinated.

Now that the OHA is developing guidance for businesses to forgo social distancing and mask guidance for vaccinated customers, some workers feel nervous about confrontations surrounding vaccine carding; others are worried that people will simply create fake vaccination cards or take off their masks once inside. “It seems like a risky loophole to put in place,” says a Gresham-area grocery worker who asked to remain anonymous. “I remember seeing those videos at the beginning of the pandemic, going, ‘I don’t think you could pay me enough money to have to argue with a maskless tyrant.’ If this comes about, and then you get people belligerent yelling about their vaccine status... it’s just a Pandora’s box.”

Workers say stronger support from management and firmer restrictions on customer behavior will protect them and improve their mental health. Some of those demands have been met with action by companies. Several grocery stores also aim to provide mental health support to workers through corporate employee assistance plans (EAP). At Fred Meyer, workers have access to an EAP provided by Magellan, a for-profit healthcare company that “enhances emotional wellness, reduces stress, and increases productivity” in workers through counseling, therapy, and financial coaching programs. New Seasons provides a similar program that includes 24/7 crisis counseling, web coaching, and a “YouTube channel with 75-plus recorded webinars.” Unfortunately, these mental health programs are often buried in a large amount of information provided during store training, and as a result, many workers remain unaware of the resources they have access to through their EAP.

The outrage surrounding the treatment of grocery workers in the past year and a half has nudged many supermarkets to provide some expanded health benefits for grocery workers. At New Seasons, a worker showing COVID-19 symptoms automatically gets two days of paid time off to get tested. And any worker who tests positive, or who is told to quarantine, or is taking care of a family member who tests positive, gets up to 14 days of paid time-off. Fred Meyer has a similar program for COVID-19-related absences. But these policies are by nature temporary and limited, underscoring the need not just for more robust worker health care and sick-leave plans that can protect workers from COVID-19, but from all unforeseen circumstances.

COVID-19’s spread through communities across the globe have revealed voids of support within the service world. Grocery workers, as the suppliers of the food people need to survive, are crucial in a crisis like a pandemic; however, 90 percent of grocery cashiers earn less than $30,000 a year. Those wages, combined with a lack of accessible health care and mental health resources for grocery workers, can make the job feel like too great a risk for a meager reward.

Kasper, who says he still works at Fred Meyer because it’s a “guaranteed paycheck,” feels that there’s little that could change that would make him feel safer at his job. “Grocery store employees put up with a lot for not a lot of money,” he says. Kasper received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April, but says he still feels unsafe, as customers continue to enter the store maskless.

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