The workers who feed America are exhausted. Now they face Omicron
She describes the experience as “the scariest thing you can ever imagine in your life. I don’t want to go through that again.”
She wants McDonald’s to “force” the issue of safety on its franchisees and customers — to “push the efforts on safety” — and is frustrated that the company isn’t requiring customers to wear masks or doing a better job telling workers when an employee tests positive for Covid-19.
She works three different jobs in the fast-food industry, often waking up at 5:30 a.m. and working until 2:00 the next morning. Sometimes, she sleeps in her car in the McDonald’s parking lot and goes back during the day to take quick naps. But she still struggles to pay her bills.
“My body is tired but I still go because I need it,” she said.
The owner of the McDonald’s location Edie worked at before she got sick last year said it has robust hygiene standards, including contact tracing and mask mandates for staff.
“The health and well-being of my restaurant employees, customers and the Broward County community is my top priority,” said Brad Ashlin, the McDonald’s franchise owner, in a statement. “We are continuing to make changes to our restaurant operations to help keep our customers and crew safe in accordance with local regulations and guidance from health experts and the CDC as new variants of Covid emerge.”
McDonald’s did not
The toll of low-wage work in America
The rapid surge of Omicron in the United States is putting new strain on store and restaurant staff already burned out and fed up after nearly two years of working through a deadly pandemic.
These customer-facing workers have grappled with daily exposure to a deadly virus while on the job. At least 213 retail and grocery workers have died from Covid-19 and more than 50,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union.
It’s all taken a toll on workers’ physical and mental health, said Ken Jacobs, the chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The Omicron variant brings many of these issues back,” Jacobs said. “Frontline retail and restaurant workers are again facing difficult decisions about health risks and the need to put food on their own tables.”
Can’t stay home
But interviews with workers in recent days reveal their distress over working amid the latest Covid-19 wave. Workers are also exasperated with how they have been treated during the pandemic by their employers and say their voices have been ignored.
Liz Wesley, a floral manager at a King Soopers supermarket in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who makes $20.51 an hour, said she is “burned out from not having support in the store and feeling like we are not respected.”
“I don’t feel like the company is keeping us informed,” Wesley said.
Many customers have stopped wearing masks or keeping social distancing, she said, but they aren’t being held to any standards.
“King Soopers has put their sales and customers, even if they’re rude, unruly and unwilling to keep their distance, above the people working in the store.”
She’s worn down and feels taken for granted on the job. But she doesn’t have another choice.
“If I could have stayed home and made a living, I would have done it. I don’t have that luxury.”
Kroger has paid an extra $1,200 to part-time workers and $1,760 to full-time employees to “reward and recognize” them during the pandemic, a company spokesperson said in an email.
“The safety of our associates and customers remains our top priority,” the spokesperson said. As Kroger prepares to navigate the next phase of the pandemic, it’s modifying policies to “continue to encourage safe behavior.”
‘Frontline of the culture wars’
The UFCW sent a letter this month to 63 retail chains calling on them to take steps such as promoting mask wearing for customers, distributing free PPE to workers, re-establishing social distancing measures in stores, offering paid sick leave benefits for vaccine appointments, and implementing “inflation wage protection.”
Stores’ mask policies have also changed as the pandemic drags on and could again become a flashpoint.
Customer behavior was one of the primary contributors to that stress.
Now, as Omicron spreads and masking becomes an important way to keep people safe, Mayer worries that workers will again be “on the frontline of the culture wars” around masks, social distancing and staying home.
If customers have gotten used to not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing in recent months, there may be more resistance to revert back, he said.
“It will be the frontline workers that customers regularly encounter like retail and restaurant workers that will bear the brunt of their frustrations.”