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News / Business / Clark County Business

Who’s hiring in Clark County in wake of COVID-19? Grocery stores

Some stores setting aside hours for seniors and vulnerable shoppers

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: March 19, 2020, 6:05am
2 Photos
Shoppers stock up on canned items at WinCo Foods Friday, March 13, 2020 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Idaho Gov. Brad Little declared a state of emergency Friday because of the new coronavirus.
Shoppers stock up on canned items at WinCo Foods Friday, March 13, 2020 in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Idaho Gov. Brad Little declared a state of emergency Friday because of the new coronavirus. (John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via AP) (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 and the coronavirus that causes it has led to a sudden and dramatic spike in layoffs as restaurants and other small businesses have shuttered. But one industry has seen the opposite trend: grocery stores.

The rapid influx of customers seeking to stock up for home quarantine has left grocery stores scrambling to keep up, both regionally and nationally. Many grocery stores have switched to reduced schedules, and this week several major grocers embarked on large-scale hiring sprees to keep up with the demand.

Visitors at Fred Meyer’s website this week were greeted by a banner across the top of the page advertising immediate job openings, with a link to apply. WinCo’s website also includes a link at the top to a COVID-19 information page that advertises immediate job openings.

Safeway and Albertsons put out a press release on Tuesday advertising available positions at stores in Oregon and Southwest Washington. The notice lists jobs in all major store departments, with a particular emphasis on the need for home delivery drivers.

Many grocers have reported a spike in online ordering for either in-store pickup or home delivery. Fred Meyer, Safeway, New Seasons and Target have all posted notices on their websites warning customers that they may face delays in online order fulfillment due to high demand.

The delivery surge isn’t limited to grocers. Online retail giant Amazon announced on Monday that it needed to hire 100,000 new employees to keep up with the rise in online orders as more people begin to quarantine themselves at home.

The company said it would temporarily raise pay by $2 for hourly employees at its warehouses, as well as at grocery store Whole Foods Market, which is owned by Amazon.

Grocery stores provided about 3,900 jobs in Clark County as of January, according to regional economist Scott Bailey. That number will presumably tick up once the grocery store hiring spree gets underway, but it’s one of the few industries in the county that can expect to see a bump in the midst of the virus outbreak.

“Everybody else is reeling,” Bailey said.

The impact of Amazon’s new hires will be trickier to assess. Clark County’s business sector employed about 700 to 800 light-truck or delivery-service drivers in a recent estimate, but that figure focuses on full-time employees at places like FedEx, UPS or pizza-delivery companies. It is unlikely to include “gig economy” contract workers for Amazon or other delivery services such as Postmates and DoorDash, Bailey said.

In the past week most major grocery stores chains contacted by The Columbian have either not replied to requests for comment or replied only by referring to previous public statements and press releases.

Changing hours

Most 24-hour grocery stores, such as WinCo and Walmart, switched to daytime-only hours in the past week to give their employees time to restock the shelves.

Other stores, including New Seasons, Whole Foods Market and Vancouver-based Chuck’s Produce have begun to follow suit and reduce their hours, even if they weren’t open overnight to begin with.

In a recent press release, Costco said it had been hit by a surge in customer traffic at its warehouses and responded by reducing some services and taking steps to limit the number of customers in its stores at a given time.

Several grocery store chains have begun to set aside designated times of day to serve seniors and shoppers with underlying health complications — the groups that are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Whole Foods will open its doors to customers age 60 and older one hour before its scheduled opening time, according to its website, and Target announced that it will set aside the first open hour each Wednesday for vulnerable shoppers. At Safeway and Albertsons locations, the designated time is from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. New Seasons has designated 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays as its “senior shopping hour,” according to a company social media page.

Grocery store workers

The spike in grocery store employment has put a spotlight on the industry. Grocery stores are too essential to shut down, but they’re also enclosed spaces where large numbers of public guests gather, and employees frequently interact up close with customers.

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Grocery stores have responded to the outbreak with increased cleaning and social distancing measures, particularly by sanitizing high-touch surfaces such as shopping cart handles, and most major chains have put out public notices stating that they are urging all employees to stay home if they get sick.

However, there have been calls for stores to take further action. A user started a Change.org petition on Wednesday demanding that Fred Meyer workers receive hazard pay due to the possibility of being exposed to the virus at work. The petition drew more than 8,000 signatures by mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Columbian business reporter