*All worker sources are anonymous for their protection.
Even under their masks, food service and grocery store workers are expected to do their jobs with grace and a smile. As essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, that means remaining friendly, efficient, and polite in spite of dealing with angry customers refusing to wear masks, the looming dread of potential COVID exposure, and the precariousness of their own economic situation.
“It’s horrible, I would say every day is not great,” said a New Leaf employee. “My dream would just be like, no one buys anything, and there would be absolutely no one at the grocery store.”
In response to this risk, cities and counties across California, including neighboring city San Jose, have adopted hazard pay, sometimes called “hero pay,” ordinances. The ordinances boost hourly pay for grocery store and pharmaceutical workers by a $3-5 amount (depending on the city) as compensation for the additional risk that comes from working during COVID-19. In cities like Napa, hazard pay legislation came after campaigns by local labor organizations.
In Santa Cruz, however, very little political momentum has accrued to advocate for a similar ordinance. Some of this is likely attributed to the fact that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union does not have an active local chapter in Santa Cruz. Discussions about a potential hazard pay ordinance have been brought before Santa Cruz City Council, but it has not become a formal agendized item.
A concern the Council had was that for larger corporations, like Safeway or Whole Foods, individuals might be transferred to locations that would not be affected by the ordinance. Additionally, certain cities like Long Beach and San Jose are dealing with lawsuits on behalf of grocery stores pushing back against the ordinances. Still, City Council Member Justin Cummings stressed the importance of advocating for grocery store workers.
“I know it seems like maybe this will come too late,” Cummings said. “But I think we also have to keep in mind that the pandemic is still ongoing, and we don’t know when it’s gonna be resolved.”
This lack of action on City Council’s part is not indicative of a lack of health and safety concerns from grocery and food service workers in Santa Cruz. Last month, a video of maskless protestors verbally assaulting employees at the Trader Joe’s on Front Street went viral, as they walked through the store demanding service, throwing cash and coins at the employees in a symbolic representation that “no one would take their money.”
“I understand that they have their opinion and their belief that they don’t have to wear these masks in public,” said a Trader Joe’s employee. “But at the same time you’re putting my health at risk and you’re putting everyone at risk because you’re trying to prove a point.”
The employee, who was there that day, described having to move to the back of the store while the altercation took place as an underlying medical condition caused them to fear for their health. They stressed that while the events in video were particularly painful and frustrating to deal with, this was not an anomaly, but a daily reality for grocery store workers.
At a corporate level, Trader Joe’s has made the decision to provide a $4 pay bump for their workers independent of any hazard pay ordinance, but this is not a trend across the board for grocery stores and other food service jobs. In Santa Cruz, New Leaf, Safeway, and Whole Foods are currently among those that do not offer hazard pay.
There are also large swaths of food service workers in high risk environments that likely wouldn’t be protected by hazard pay ordinances as they have appeared in other cities. Coffee shops, bars that serve food, and restaurants are all open in some capacity in Santa Cruz at this point, and all have to deal with noncompliant customers daily.
“Keeping the vibes up is really hard,” said a Verve Coffee Roasters employee. “I usually just stay super nice and say, ‘Hey can you put your mask on,’ and sometimes people get really belligerent, but we handle that too.”
For workers at popular establishments like Verve, there is a tension between being grateful for work, and resentment of the clientele is hard to navigate. On one hand the socializing, particularly with regulars allows for meaningful connection despite the isolation of COVID-19, but that is harder to enjoy when other patrons are blatantly disrespectful about mask and social distancing policy.
“A lot of my coworkers have burnt out, just because it’s stressful,” the Verve employee said. “A lot of people quit recently too, so there’s more work, and it’s more emotional work to do the job as well.”
The stresses of working are also not limited to dealing with clientele. Many grocery and food service workplaces offer limited to no assistance for workers trying to get COVID-19 testing, often relying on the fact that large populations of student workers have access to university testing. Non-student workers who lack those resources are left to navigate testing for COVID-19 on their own.
Grocery stores including New Leaf, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s can have upwards of 100 people on staff. Keeping track of the behavior of other employees, even outside of work, becomes a part of workers’ own safety. Small break rooms can be anxiety-inducing for employees uncomfortable with eating or removing their masks in such close proximity to their coworkers. Even something as seemingly innocuous as clocking in can be alarming with the knowledge that a hundred or more employees may have touched the same clock without sanitization.
“I wear two masks and wash my hands all the time,” said a Whole Foods employee. “I try my best, but it gets really hard when people in leadership walk around without masks. That gets sticky because I don’t feel comfortable telling my boss to wear a mask.”
With the looming rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for the general public, and the fact that food service workers have already been eligible to be vaccinated since late February, it’s unclear whether a hazard pay ordinance will make it to Santa Cruz any time soon, if at all, leaving many workers uncompensated for the trauma of working through the pandemic.