Several dozen Boston-area grocery store workers and their supporters protested outside the Ink Block Whole Foods in the South End Tuesday, wearing face masks and holding signs such as “Essential not disposable” as they demanded employers provide gloves and masks, additional paid sick leave, and time-and-a-half hazard pay during the coronavirus pandemic.
Grocery stores have become a lifeline at a time when people are largely confined to their homes to keep the highly contagious virus from spreading, and cashiers, baggers, and other employees are exposed to a steady stream of customers with varying degrees of protections.
A number of grocery store employees nationwide have died of COVID-19 in recent days, including a Market Basket employee in Salem, the company said Tuesday. It is believed to be the first such death of a grocery store worker in Massachusetts. Two other employees at the store have tested positive and are in quarantine. A handful of employees at other Market Basket stores in the area have also been diagnosed with the virus.
At least four other grocery store employees have died around the country, according to news reports: two at the same Chicago-area Walmart, one at a Trader Joe’s in Scarsdale, N.Y., and one at a Giant store in Largo, Md. The four chains with employees involved in Tuesday’s protest — Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, and Trader Joe’s — have all reported positive tests among employees. At Stop & Shop, the majority of COVID-19 cases among the store’s employees are concentrated around New York City, a spokeswoman said.
On Tuesday, the United Food & Commercial Workers union and Albertsons Cos., which owns Shaw’s and Star Market, launched a national campaign to have supermarket employees designated as extended first responders or emergency personnel, which would give them priority for coronavirus testing and access to masks and gloves. In several states, including Massachusetts, grocery store workers already have access to emergency child care.
Lisa Wilson, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s rally in Boston, started working at Shaw’s in Hyde Park a week ago, after getting laid off from her job at a movie theater in downtown Boston, she said. Employees are allowed to wear gloves and masks, but the store doesn’t provide them, she said, and workers get a 5 percent discount on the gloves it sells. Wilson, 20, makes $12.75 an hour and gets one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, she said.
"There's always a level of fear," she said. "Is today going to be the day that I get sick?"
"There's a bigger fear of how am I going to pay my bills and how am I going to take care of my family?" said Wilson, who is also helping out her parents in Fall River, who are now both out of work.
Many grocery stores have granted workers temporary raises — 10 percent at Stop & Shop, $2 an hour at Whole Foods, Shaw’s, and Trader Joe’s — and are giving workers placed in quarantine or diagnosed with COVID-19 an additional two weeks of paid sick time. Deep cleaning, installing plexiglass guards at checkouts, and limiting the number of people in stores are also becoming commonplace.
Grocery stores initially resisted supplying workers with masks, in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have since been reversed. Now, Shaw’s and Star Market are in the process of obtaining masks for workers, a spokesman said. At Whole Foods, workers must undergo temperature screenings, and gloves and masks are distributed at the beginning of each shift. Stop & Shop said it has made aisles one way and is procuring KN95 masks for employees.
Trader Joe’s said it is supplying workers with gloves; it had masks made and is in the process of distributing them. In some stores where workers have tested positive or had suspected cases, stores have been shut down for several days for additional cleaning and workers were paid during the closure, a spokesman said. In areas hard hit by the pandemic, the company is scheduling periodic store closures for deep cleaning even if there hasn’t been a diagnosed or suspected case.
Wilson, the Hyde Park Shaw’s employee, said management has not been forthcoming about employees testing positive. The store has publicly confirmed cases at the Hyde Park store, and in Easton, but Wilson said her questions about it were deflected. The response made Wilson feel “hands-down scared.”
“The least you can do is inform people,” she said.
On Tuesday, the state implemented caps on how many people can be inside a grocery store at one time, issuing an order that limits stores to 40 percent of the capacity listed on their occupancy permits, counting both customers and employees.
Many area supermarkets have already placed caps on the number of customers in a store, letting new ones in only when someone leaves. The new rules are designed to create consistency across the state, said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
"This is about a more uniform distribution across our communities on how to provide a safe environment for customers as well as the workforces," she said Tuesday.
The rules, which take effect immediately, will be enforced by local boards of health, according to the state order. Stores are also encouraged to designate one-way aisles, “where practical” to reduce crowding, to monitor appropriate distance among customers waiting to enter, and to encourage online delivery or curbside pickup.
Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.