As early as April 8, the United States Labor Department recommended that any stores with the capacity to do so should transition to either drive-through or curbside pick-up as a way to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus through social distancing. It's a service many U.S. grocery store chains like Kroger and Ralphs already had in place, but according to some store employees the increase in online orders hasn't left them feeling any safer.
"It's literally impossible to keep up," said Don B., a Kentucky-based Kroger employee. Don requested that his full name not be used because he feared losing his job during the pandemic. "We went from doing an average of 45 [pick-up] orders a day to 280."
To place a Kroger pickup order — or Clicklist, as early adopters first knew it — customers browse online, add items to a virtual cart, select whether or not they will allow staff-chosen substitutions if items are out of stock. Then they choose a future one-hour pick-up window, during which they will park in a designated area in front of the store and wait for an attendant to load the groceries into their car.
During a normal week, customers often could have their orders filled within a few hours — and rarely had to plan more than a day in advance — but now orders have spiked as customers try to stay out of retail stores, and wait times can go up to seven days. Additionally, as in-person shoppers have seen, a sustained rush of panic-buying after the novel coronavirus was first classified as a pandemic rendered some grocery shelves bare or struggling to stay stocked, meaning that when pickup orders are fulfilled, they are sometimes incomplete.
As a result, it's becoming increasingly common to see complaints about the system online (just type "Clicklist sucks" into Twitter for a sampling).
"But this system wasn't designed for a pandemic," Don B. said. "It's flawed, orders get misplaced."
Additionally, Don said, the space at his store where employees receive and compile the online orders was not set up for social distancing. This makes sense; Kroger began rolling out the service in 2014, and many stores were retrofitted to accommodate it.
A photo of the room taken before the pandemic that he sent shows Don and four of his coworkers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, each holding up a candy bar. It's compact, filled with stacks of milk crates, a refrigerator and freezer, multiple computers, and video monitors that stream footage of the parking lot.
"Our desk and two computers are probably about three feet apart," Don B. said. "Again, not designed for a pandemic. And no one could have seen this coming, but I feel like corporate needs to cut back on the amount of orders we can do."
According to Don, this has led to a tremendous amount of tension in the store as employees fear for their own health while also being pushed to accomplish more and more throughout the day.
"It's impossible to keep the social distancing protocol right now, no way we can stand six feet apart," he said. "I have a prescription for Xanax and I've had to use it a lot."
Kroger did not respond to Salon's request for comment.
Across the country, grocery store chains are navigating multiple needs that are sometimes in conflict: serve anxious customers who are eating more at home now safely and quickly, while making sure employees are physically safe and fairly compensated.
As Salon reported on March 18, multiple states — including Minnesota, Vermont and Kentucky — have designated grocery store employees as "emergency personnel," meaning that these employees can access free, state-provided child care so they can continue to work, which was a commendable start.
In the subsequent month, both activists and unions have petitioned big box stores for hazard pay for employees whose day-to-day tasks put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. In early April, Kroger announced that they would be implementing a $2 raise for front-line essential workers. They dubbed it "Hero Pay" and it will be applied to hours worked March 29 through May 2.
According to a release from the company, "the premium will be disbursed weekly to ensure associates have access to additional cash. The Hero Bonus follows and is in addition to our previous commitment shared on March 21, which provided a one-time bonus to frontline associates."
Heather Jacobson, a former Kroger employee from Columbus, Ohio, says that doesn't feel like enough compensation for the day-to-day risk employees face.
"Most employees had maxed out at $10 or $11 an hour," she said. "So 'hero pay' doesn't even get them up to $15, which is the compensation that feels fair to me during this health crisis."
Jacobson, who is immunocompromised, said she was being pulled away from working the deli counter to fulfilling pickup orders — a "less customer-facing position," she says — but she quit three weeks ago when she realized that working the pickup orders means shopping alongside customers who aren't necessarily adhering to best practices for social distancing.
"There were still crowds of people pouring in daily, many of which just wouldn't be wearing masks or gloves," she said.
Kroger has since announced additional safety protocols aimed at in-store shoppers: customer capacity limits, protective barriers between cashiers and customers, and floor markers to encourage social distancing.
But Jacobson said one of the best things supermarkets could do to protect their staff is convert stores to pickup-only facilities.
"That way we could use the entire store as space to fulfill orders without having to be in contact with customers all day, too," she said.
Kroger is currently testing this model with one of their Greater Cincinnati stores; according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Kroger is not considering pickup-only at other regional stores at this time as "company officials said the switch was due to a noticeable surge in pickup orders in the immediate area."
Another small way supermarkets and customers could demonstrate their appreciation for curbside grocery delivery employees during this time is embracing a tipping protocol. Tipping is against official company policy — per Kroger's website and Twitter, "while it is appreciated, our associates do not accept tips" — but several employees with whom I spoke reported an increase in customers leaving envelopes of cash in their trunks or inquiring how to Venmo or Paypal them a tip.
"I'm not going to say 'no' to that right now," said Shannon P., an Atlanta-based employee. "There's one man who also has been leaving cold sodas in the back for associates, which is nice. There was also a woman who left us a lasagna, like in a dish, for us to eat — which was weird, but honestly, everything is appreciated."
On April 26, Kroger announced that it would be mandatory for all employees to wear face masks. According to a news release, employees working in some parts of the store were already required to wear masks.
These will be provided by the store or "associates are also welcome to bring their own suitable masks or facial coverings to work, if they prefer."
"As an essential business, we've been balancing our most urgent priority to provide a safe environment for our associates and customers with open stores, ecommerce solutions and an efficiently operating supply chain, so that our communities always have access to fresh, affordable food and products," wrote Kristal Howard, head of Kroger corporate communications and media relations, in an email.
She continued: "Additionally, we also encourage all our customers to wear a mask when they visit our stores, or alternatively, consider one of our ecommerce options available at kroger.com."
Wearing masks, however, is not mandatory for customers, except in states where face masks are now required to be worn in public, like Delaware (there are no Kroger locations in the seven other states that currently require masks).
But since COVID-19 can be spread by people interacting in close proximity, even by those who are asymptomatic — hence social distancing recommendations — it would make more sense for both customers and employees be required to wear masks.
This is being billed as a new safety measure to further prevent the spread of COVID-19, but if the goal is genuinely to protect both customers and employees, everyone in the store would need to adhere to these recommendations.