Grocery Store Employees Now The Crisis Workers That Keep Vermont Fed

Mar 26, 2020

Grocery store workers across Vermont are trying to manage the new risks that come with keeping people fed.

The number of people with COVID-19 in Vermont is rising exponentially, and public health officials say the only way to stay safe is to stay home.

Most grocery store workers in Vermont continue to report to work anyway, despite the new risks that accompany employment at places like the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier.  

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“It’s somewhere that people have to go to and people have to feel safe going to,” said Reis Winkeljohn, who has been working the registers at the coop for five years. “So anything I can do to provide that safety is what I want to give.”

Winkeljohn said he’s always tried to be social with his patrons. But customer service in a global pandemic is a new thing altogether.

Reis Winkeljohn checks out a customer from behind a plexiglass sheet at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

“It’s more just like a nervous feeling of seeing people in distress and trying to adapt who I am to make them feel comfortable,” he said.

Retail commerce has ground to a halt for the most part in Montpelier. The checkout aisles at the Hunger Mountain Coop are a notable exception.

Save for the facemasks, blue latex gloves and plexiglass dividers now hanging between the registers, business here looks a lot like it did before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

That doesn’t mean the work is the same.

“I describe this as the leadership challenge of our careers, we hope,” said Kari Bradley, general manager of the coop.

The Vermont Retail and Grocers Association estimates that there are 19,000 employees working at about 900 food retailers in the state. And Dr. Tim Lahey, an infectious disease physician at University of Vermont Medical Center, said those jobs definitely carry new risks.

Click here for the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association's spreadsheet of food retailers and the special services they're providing in response to the coronavirus.

“They are exposed to high numbers of people. Their jobs often require them to touch things that are touched by the general public, like the food they’re running across the scanner,” Lahey said.

Spending eight hours a day in an enclosed building with hundreds of people is basically the opposite of what public health experts are advising right now.

Bradley, the coop's general manager, said he and the staff are doing their best to manage those risks. He said Hunger Mountain is trying to balance two missions now: Keeping staff and customers safe, and preserving community access to food and other essentials.

“We can’t maximize two variables at the same time,” Bradley said. “But we can optimize and do the best we can to provide that in this crisis.”

Beyond the general guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Vermont Department of Health, Bradley said he hasn’t gotten much in the way of specific advice from state officials.

At Mehuron’s Market in Waitsfield, co-owner Bruce Hyde said he and his staff have mostly had to figure things out on their own as well.

Mehuron's Market in Waitsfield has been in business for nearly 80 years.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

“Right now it’s complicated in grocery,” Hyde said.

Hyde has sent home all of the employees who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, with benefits and pay. He said the workers that have stayed on the job have gotten bonuses, “like kind of a hazard-pay bonus.”

Hyde said he sincerely appreciates the gratitude the community has shown for Mehuron’s work during the pandemic.

“But grocery workers right now don’t need thanks for what’s going on. We need support from the state and federal government,” Hyde said. “The fact that I’m, like, having to go find appropriate masks for our checkout people in somebody’s basement, or having to source gloves through, like, food service channels is, you know, I think pretty shameful, honestly.”

Back at the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, Alicia Royer wrapped fresh-cut wedges of local cheese to put in the refrigerated display shelf.

“I’m a single mother. I have two jobs, and I go to school, so I kind of don’t have a choice but to be as healthy as I can be and provide for the community at home too,” Royer said.

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Royer said she’s always felt good about what he does. These days though, she said she feels a particular sense of pride.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing a good job, because I’m one of the essential persons," Royer said. "So it helps fuel my drive to come to work and serve the community."