As panicked Americans cleared supermarkets of toilet paper and food last spring, grocery employees gained recognition as among the most indispensable of the pandemic’s front-line workers.
A year later, most of those workers are waiting their turn to receive COVID-19 vaccines, with little clarity about when that might happen.
A decentralized vaccine campaign has resulted in a patchwork of policies that differ from state to state, and even county to county in some areas, resulting in an inconsistent rollout to low-paid essential workers who are exposed to hundreds of customers each day.
Focusing on older adults is an approach many epidemiologists support as the most ethical and efficient because it will help reduce deaths and hospitalizations faster. People over 65 account for 80% of deaths in the country, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.
“Our main goals with vaccines should be reducing deaths and hospitalizations,” said William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. “In order to do that, we need to begin vaccinating those at the highest risks.”
But many grocery workers have been surprised and disheartened to find that they’ve been left out of such policies, in part because a CDC panel had raised their expectations by recommending the second phase of the vaccine rollout — 1B — include grocery and other essential employees.
Even when grocery workers are prioritized, they still face long waits. New York opened up vaccines to grocery workers in early January, along with other essential employees and anyone 65 and over. But limited supply makes booking an appointment difficult, even more so for the workers who don’t have large companies or unions to advocate for them.
Only 13 states are currently allowing grocery workers to sign up for vaccines, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.3 million U.S. grocery, meatpacking and other front-line workers.
But for many grocery workers, the realization that they won’t be eligible any time soon adds to the sense of being expendable. They have fought a mostly losing battle for hazard pay, which a handful of companies offered in the spring but ended despite multiple resurgences of the virus.
A year into the pandemic, some shoppers still refuse to wear masks and managers often don’t force them to follow the rules.
Francisco Marte, president of the Bodega and Small Business Association of New York, said he tells his own workers not to risk their lives confronting shoppers who won’t wear masks. In August, an angry customer slashed thousands of dollars worth of goods at a Bronx bodega after being asked to wear a mask.
“It should be the job of the police,” said Marte, whose organization handed out 150,000 free masks in the spring when they were scarce. “I tell the employees, keep your distance and wear your mask but don’t put yourself in danger because we are the ones who lose.”
Marte said he has been lobbying local officials to set aside vaccine appointments for bodega workers, many of whom are unaware they are eligible. He hopes that the recent opening of a large vaccination site at Yankee Stadium will make access easier.
Debbie Whipple, a scan manager at a Kroger in Fayetteville, Georgia, said her union, UFWC Local 1996, doesn’t expect Georgia to open vaccines to grocery workers until April at the earliest.
“We have to be here, just like a fireman and a policeman, because people need food,” said Whipple, who described the frustration of watching customers routinely walk around barefaced and decline offers of free masks. “We should be getting the vaccine.”