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As Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay safe” order takes effect, the dangers for essential retail workers, among them many people of color and immigrants, are likely to increase.
Despite adapting to the new workplace conditions and measures taken by their employers, these workers worry about the risk of contracting COVID-19 from customers or fellow employees.
For Aaneesah, a Black queer educator who has a part-time job at Seward Community Co-Op Friendship store, daily precautions include doing a deep clean of their cashier station numerous times per shift.
The store has placed tape on the floor to remind people to keep distant, and prohibited customers from bringing their own bags. Seward has also installed plexiglass for the cashiers, signs telling customers to give employees space if they are stocking, and has donated masks available for its employees, Aaneesah said.
According to Seward’s COVID-19 update available online, the store now requires all employees to wear face coverings, and has acquired both disposable face masks and clear plastic face shields, as well as community-made cloth masks.
One of the main concerns for Aaneesah, who has been getting paid $2 more an hour during the pandemic, are encounters with customers. Aaneesah wishes the store could make masks mandatory or encourage shoppers more strongly to wear them. “I can come in contact with 100 people during my shift, and I only work part time,” Aaneesah said. “I wish they would put more signs and messages on social media asking customers to please wear masks while in the store for us.”
That danger may be about to increase. While a number of restrictions will remain in place, experts agree that moves by the state to continue the gradual reopening of the economy are likely to lead to an increase in COVID cases. They are unable to say how big the problem will be, however.
“The African community is getting really hit hard,” said a young Walmart employee named Ms. Mohamed, who asked that neither her first name nor the specific Walmart be used for fear that she would be fired. People in her community need to keep working, she said. Most of her co-workers at the store are also African.
Mohamed is a personal shopper, which means she gathers items for customers and brings them out to people in their cars. Since COVID-19 hit, Mohamed said her employer has been taking employee temperatures each day before work. They are asked about symptoms, and given hand sanitizer and a mask. Sometimes employees are also given gloves, though there have been times when gloves weren’t available, she said.
Walmart’s COVID-19 responses can be found on its website. The updates include requiring associates to wear masks, encouraging social distancing within stores, updating its leave policies through May, and Installing sneeze guards and social distancing decals.
Mohamed’s biggest fear is the customers inside the store. “We do come in contact with a lot of customers,” she said. “Some have masks, but the customers are touching everything. It’s dangerous no matter how many precautions we take.”
Mohamed estimates she comes in contact with 600 people during a shift. “It’s just so hard to take these precautions,” she said. “If they got a question, they will come close to you.”
Mohamed lives with her family— eight people in all — in one house, and all of her family members remain in essential jobs. “For us Africans, taking time off from essential worker jobs is not an option,” she said.
That people of color make a large part of the essential worker workforce may offer one clue as to why COVID-19 is affecting communities of color disproportionately. And while Walz recently indicated that employers must provide safe working conditions, and that employees may collect unemployment insurance if they leave their jobs out of safety concerns, fear of contracting the virus remains a pressing concern.
And yet, it’s a time for coming together as well. Lorenzo Lee Borela, a 28-year employee of Cub Foods, said that as stressful as it is, it’s also a time of hope.
A Filipino American who came to the U.S. at age 17, Borela said he uses body language to protect himself from customers wanting to get too close. “You just back up,” he said. “I think they understand that when you back up, they are supposed to not be that close.”
Borela, a union steward for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said he appreciates getting daily communications from his union president about the COVID-19 situation. “They are here for us,” he said. In addition, he appreciates the $2 pay raise, called “appreciation pay,” as well as the double time he receives when working overtime. (Typically, he has been working 50 hours since the pandemic crisis started.
According to Borela, a few of his co-workers with pre-existing conditions have stayed home, as has a teenager whose parents didn’t want their child to go to work. “If anything, it has shown me that we are all in this together,” he said. “When the pandemic is done, we are going to be in a better place.”