By Duncan Agnew at the Texas Tribune, Feb. 4, 2021
In the middle of a recent shift at Kroger in Cedar Hill, Jackie Ryan was assisting customers with self-checkout when an elderly woman asked for help finding canned pumpkin. While Ryan pointed her in the right direction, the woman mentioned that she had been feeling sick. After Ryan helped her and her son pay for their groceries, the woman suddenly collapsed.
Ryan quickly dialed 911, and a team of EMTs arrived to take the woman to the hospital. While overhearing the first responders question the woman, Ryan discovered that she had been sick for over two months and received a COVID-19 test earlier that same day.
Ryan didn’t know the results of the test, but concerned about potential exposure to the virus, she asked her manager if she needed to quarantine or take time off work.
“If you don’t get any symptoms, then it’s fine,” the manager replied.
April Martin, the corporate affairs manager for the Kroger Dallas Division, said that Kroger has complied with all health and safety regulations when identifying positive cases among store employees.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, Ryan’s experience that day reflects the challenges that grocery store workers across Texas are facing in their stores every day. For months, workers have risked their health to keep shorthanded grocery stores open, all while dealing with increased hours and customers refusing to wear masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices urged states to include front-line essential workers in Phase 1B of vaccine allocation. But Texas decided not to include any essential employees like grocery store workers in the state’s current vaccine priority groups. Without any guarantee of vaccine prioritization, grocery workers now find themselves overwhelmed and continually exposed to the virus with no end in sight.
“It’s kind of a big mess,” Ryan said. “That’s what it feels like. It feels like a big mess, and it feels like there’s no right answer.”
Martin said the grocery store company, like several American businesses that had to swiftly alter how they operate in a pandemic, has spent more than $1 billion to provide safeguards against the virus and give employees bonuses, paid leave and wage premiums, among other things.
“Our dedicated associates have gone above and beyond to serve our customers and communities during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history, and we’re committed to providing the resources and support to keep them and their families safe as they continue their remarkable effort,” she said.
Back in April, when people made a rush for essential supplies like toilet paper and soap, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a message of support for grocery store workers, saying that “everyone across our state appreciates your hard work to help Texans respond to the #coronavirus.”
Since then, workers say they have felt forgotten and abandoned by the state government.