Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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Grocery strikes spike at Whole Foods, Instacart and Amazon as fear over COVID-19 spreads


Both grocery and delivery workers are holding strikes and walkouts this week as concerns over dangerous work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic intensify.

Employees at Amazon and Instacart went on strike Monday, while Amazon-owned Whole Foods employees are planning a walkout Tuesday.

Staff at all three organizations — which do not have unions — are petitioning for safer work conditions, better pay to make up for their increased risk and extended sick leave protections.

The strikes come as grocery workers become increasingly worried about their safety. An Albertsons employee in Escondido and two workers at a Carlsbad Sprout’s store recently tested positive for COVID-19, cementing what many staffers have been fearing for weeks.

“My co-workers and I are nervous because it feels like a million people are coming in and we don’t know who has it and who doesn’t,” said Esther Lopez, who works at Ralphs in Chula Vista, Calif., in an interview Friday.

The Sprouts and Albertsons workers were the latest in a recent string of positive tests in retail. Todd Walters, president of San Diego County’s United Food and Commercial Workers union, said there are at least 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases among the union’s Southern California members as of Saturday, three of which are in San Diego.

Walters said the unionized workers at places like Albertsons, Stater Bros. Markets and Vons are already getting increased protections, thanks to the union’s efforts. When workers become sick with COVID-19, they get extended sick pay and health benefits and the employers must notify other workers of the confirmed cases.

Last month several unionized grocery chains across San Diego announced temporarily boosted pay for workers and rolled out social distancing measures to keep staff safer.

“Our union employees have the right to representation, and they get to negotiate their working conditions,” Walters said.

Both Amazon’s Whole Foods Market and Instacart have also implemented new measures to help workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Whole Foods is giving workers a $2 raise through the end of April, and both Whole Foods and Instacart workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 get extended sick pay.

Who’s striking and why?

Amazon’s strike is centered in Staten Island, New York, where warehouse workers are demanding a shutdown due to infected staffers. But the workers at Instacart and Whole Foods are holding walkouts nationwide.

“We will not risk our safety, our health, or our lives for a company that fails to adequately protect us, fails to adequately pay us, and fails to provide us with accessible benefits should we become sick,” reads a Medium post on the strike from the Gig Workers Collective, an organization founded by two Instacart workers.

These workers are suddenly in much higher demand, as online grocery delivery has skyrocketed during nationwide quarantine orders. Both Amazon and Instacart announced last week they were hiring hundreds of thousands of workers to keep up with the new pace — and scale — of orders.

Instacart’s shoppers are seeking an additional $5 per order in hazard pay, a default 10% tip amount in the app, more access to paid sick leave for people who have preexisting conditions or get sick, and company-provided protective materials, such as soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

For San Diego shoppers looking for grocery delivery Monday, the service wasn’t available through Instacart. As of press time, the company’s site notifies shoppers, “We’re sorry, all shoppers are busy for today.” The overload of demand doesn’t mean the strike is being effective, however, as online grocery delivery has experienced delays since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

Will it affect shopping?

A spokesperson for Instacart said business is still booming. Despite the strike, the company has seen an uptick in active “shoppers” — contracted workers who pick up grocery orders and deliver them to homes.

“We respect the rights of shoppers to provide us feedback and voice their concerns,” the company statement reads. “As it relates to today’s actions, we’ve seen absolutely no impact to Instacart’s operations. Today, we saw 40% more shoppers on the platform compared to the same day and time last week. Over the last 72 hours, more groceries were sold on our platform than ever before. In the last week alone, 250,000 new people signed up to become Instacart full-service shoppers and 50,000 of them have already started shopping on the platform.”

Whole Foods workers are asking for more support from their employer, including increased flexible spending account benefits to help cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, along with guaranteed “hazard pay” that amounts to double wages during the pandemic, according to Whole Worker, the national worker group that is organizing the “sick out,” on Twitter.