Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com.
Many businesses are suffering in the COVID-19 crisis, but grocery stores are booming as customers stock up. The workers in those stores are now deemed “essential,” but the treatment they’ve been expected to accept for years has made them feel anything but. Travis Boothe is a pharmacy technician in Beckley, West Virginia, at a Kroger grocery store and a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, and he’s been noticing the changes in the workplace as the crisis grows.
“There’s been a real interesting change in peoples’ mannerisms, and in the ways that we see the public interacting with each other and with us,” Boothe said. West Virginia is only beginning to experience the pandemic, he noted, as testing is starting to confirm more infections, and as that’s gone on, he’s noted “a pretty marked difference in the looks of fear and unease in the public.” He’s also noticed
almost a sense of desperation, for public interaction. The elderly really, really want to just speak and talk with anybody who’s willing to listen, and I think that’s a real interesting part of this entire epidemic that people haven’t really quite touched on fully yet. I had one gentleman who wanted to talk—six feet away from me, but just talk. I never met him in my life but he wanted to tell me his entire story, and where he grew up and everything. People just really want attention. I think this isolation is starting to get to people.
Working in the pharmacy means that people treat him with a level of trust, Boothe noted.
We’re the people that they come to with questions about their medicine; we fill their medicine, we know them on a first-name basis. So it makes sense that they would be coming to us for social interaction, too. But it was not what I expected, to this degree. For pharmacy technicians like myself, we’re not specialized medical personnel, we’re generally there to support the pharmacists in their job, but people still look to us in a sort of medical capacity. Minus the pay.
Boothe, like many of the workers he knows at Kroger, is part-time, but he’s working steadily through the crisis. The company uses a “lean retail” model—inspired by “lean production” in manufacturing—but for now, the workers are getting overtime and working hard, Boothe said, to do “the best we can to take care of people.” So far, they’ve been able to keep up with his customers’ needs.
But the workers’ minds are starting to change. “There are some people who are happy to have a job, in this environment. There are others who are frustrated at the least, and angry at worst over the fact that we’re now deemed ‘essential,’” he said, yet aren’t getting “the compensation and benefits and precautions that are necessitated with such a qualification. And I think that as things develop that might bring some tensions to the forefront, and I think we’re starting to see that across all sectors right now, in the economy. As these workers are realizing just how essential we are to the very foundations of this country’s economy.”
He continued: “We are doing extremely well. Rather, the company is doing extremely well. Profits are up, sales are up. They pretty much have a guarantee that those profits will continue throughout this crisis.” As of March 31, the UFCW negotiated hazard pay, additional precautions, and paid sick time for Kroger workers, as well as additional healthcare benefits that include, importantly, mental health care. But he’s not sure how long that will last. “Originally, Kroger did not want to give in to hazard pay. The only reason we have that is through rank-and-file activism,” he said.
I see this as a truce, and not a victory. I think that the key for us right now is to understand that, yeah, it’s going to take consistent pressure to make sure that Kroger and other companies across the country don’t try to backslide on these gains they’ve been giving to these workers. Which should’ve been deserved in the first place—the right to a living wage is non-negotiable. But building the power necessary to make that a reality is a different question entirely.
The spirit of activism, though, is growing in his store. “Coworkers who never would’ve thought about the idea of refusing work or potential strike actions have been saying to me, ‘What do we have to lose? They need us. We’re essential, we’re necessary. Their profits don’t exist without us showing up to work,’” he said. “I think it’s definitely changed the consciousness of working people within this company, at least, and I’m sure that holds true across the board as we see as workers are staging actions, you know, at Whole Foods or Instacart.”
He expects that militancy to continue as the crisis builds and is looking toward his local’s next contract fight.
Our contract here, in West Virginia, through Local 400, is actually set to expire in August. What I want to stress to my coworkers with this is that, not only does this give us the leverage and power right now, but I think it’s absolutely necessary for us to continue that momentum forward and say, come contract renewal, if they can afford this hazard pay right now, and these other benefits and this compensation, you know, talking about child care or paid leave, you know, maintaining our health fund, what is to stop them in August from doing the exact same thing? We can’t settle for anything less than what we actually deserve.
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.