Viewpoint: Failure to Enforce Mask Mandate Leaves Grocery Workers Vulnerable
On July 15 the grocery chain Kroger announced that starting July 22 its stores would begin requiring mask coverings for all shoppers in its stores. Walmart had announced a similar measure earlier that day.
As a Kroger employee and shop steward with Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, I can say that this move is completely toothless. It represents nothing but a feel-good publicity stunt to cash in on rising demands for mask mandates. Employees have been required to wear masks by the company for months since the beginning of the pandemic, and have been following the guidelines accordingly. The majority of customers wear masks within our stores, however there continue to be far too many that do not.
On July 16 the company notified me that I had been in contact with an individual who had tested positive for COVID. That brought the question of what constitutes appropriate workplace safety measures to the forefront of our minds. That day, a representative from the division’s corporate office was flown in to meet with employees in our store and to phone those who were not there during the day. After I expressed concern about safety, I was told that Kroger was doing all that it could to protect its employees from the risks of the virus.
I asked how the company was going to be enforcing the mask mandate. Their answer is that they are going to place an employee at the front entrance to thank people who are wearing masks, and to ask those who aren’t to wear one, and then to offer a mask to them. If they refuse, a manager is to be radioed who will then talk to the customer about wearing a mask.
NOT A REQUIREMENT
The question then becomes, what happens after the manager talks to them and the customer refuses to wear a mask while shopping? The answer is nothing. The company will do nothing to stop them. There will be no refusing of service to non-masked customers, nor will they be asked to leave the store. Management is being told that their hands are essentially tied.
Anyone with half a brain can see how this is in complete contradiction with the popular understanding of what a “mask requirement” means. Even if one was to glance over the complete lack of enforcement, the way the company is going about attempting to “enforce” is entirely repulsive as well.
To stick a low-wage employee at the front of a store and task them with confronting shoppers with this policy is ineffective at best, and outright dangerous at worst, given the wave of confrontational mask refusers across the country. Low-wage workers have been assaulted by vicious anti-maskers for doing such jobs.
Either management needs to be enforcing this measure at the door, or Kroger needs to hire unarmed trained security to act as enforcers at the door. Retail employees are not trained to deescalate confrontations, and it isn’t appropriate to expect them to act as such.
TAKE OUR SAFETY SERIOUSLY
UFCW President Marc Perrone said in an article recently posted by CNBC, “The key issue here is that a mandate is meaningless—meaningless—without enforcement.” I couldn’t agree more. Everything the company is doing right now, or rather the lack thereof, indicates that management is far more concerned with the potential loss of profit if they were to refuse service to unmasked customers than they are with ensuring their employees' safety.
It is time to cut through the corporate double-speak. Kroger must enforce its new mask requirement or stop claiming that it is a requirement at all. If we as employees are required to wear masks, and I believe wholeheartedly that we should be, then so should the public shopping in our stores.
Per CDC guidelines, masks work to prevent the spread of the virus to other parties if one is infected. To demand that employees wear a mask, but not customers, sends a clear message that the company doesn’t take our safety seriously.
Travis Boothe is a pharmacy technician at a West Virginia Kroger and a shop steward with UFCW Local 400. Read an interview with him from March about the dangers faced by grocery workers during the pandemic here.