How Essential Workers Are Fighting For Safer Grocery Stores

Food & Drink

Grocery and drug store workers are essential to their communities. Their workplaces are sources of food as well as public gathering spaces. But over the last few years, clerks and cashiers have had to deal with increasing incidents of crime and violence at work.

One recent study identified over 360 shootings in the last 3 years at Walmart
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stores, causing 112 deaths in under 3 years. Over 530 other shooting incidents killed 186 people in the country’s 12 largest grocery chains. And in the post-pandemic era, the cost of living crisis, particularly housing and food inflation, has led to a new wave of theft, assault and mental health crises in grocery and drug stores. Clerks and cashiers are in harm’s way on a daily basis.

Retail unions have been on the frontlines in stores and in the public sphere addressing these issues head on. Kathy Finn is President of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Southern California.

Errol Schweizer: How has working in a grocery store or drug store changed as the pandemic has subsided?

Kathy Finn: It’s not so much as the pandemic subsided, but there’s been a lot of a lot more conflict, a lot more violent incidents. There’s also been a really big increase in shoplifting. So our members are facing almost daily incidents of violence.

ES: What’s going on in the communities around grocery stores and pharmacies?

KF: It has to do with the economy that we live in, the disparity between rich and poor, which is getting wider and wider. We see reports of billionaire CEOs and private equity that are basically pulling money out of neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods. And folks who work for a living can barely pay their rent or feed their families. Our own members are low wage workers. And somebody who works 40 hours a week, some of them (even) have a second job. That creates a system where more and more people feel that work doesn’t pay. And so they’re going to engage in some other kind of conduct. There’s not enough social net support for homeless people and people with mental health issues. I think the pandemic created trauma amongst a lot of people. People lost their jobs. There’s just a lot more people that are not in situations where they’re able to make a living, where they’re able to support themselves. The economy is just not rewarding for working class people and low wage workers right now.

ES: What role do grocery clerks, pharmacy clerks, or cashiers usually play in managing store safety? It seems like that’s not their core job.

KF: They’re definitely not trained. They don’t get crisis de-escalation training. They don’t get training in how to deal with shoplifters. What most of the companies have told people is, oh, just provide excellent customer service. If you suspect somebody of shoplifting, just go up to them and say, excuse me, how can I help you? And many times, you know, especially with shoplifters that are particularly brazen, they don’t want anybody to come up to them. And we’ve had people who went up to somebody who was stealing alcohol, a bottle of whatever it was in their coat. And a store clerk comes up and says, excuse me, how can I help you? And they pulled the bottle out and whacked the person across the head with it.

A lot of people know about the Rite Aid
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in Glassell Park near downtown L.A., where some people came in to steal a six pack of beer. And as they were walking out with it, there was one cashier alone at the front of the store, and he stepped in front of them and the person pulled out a gun and shot and killed him. I was talking to some members the other day, and there were three or four different members in this group said they’ve been assaulted in the last year while they were at work.

ES: What role is UFCW playing here?

KF: We feel very strongly that these companies need to do more to make their workplaces safe. There is not really a OSHA workplace violence standard set for retail establishments. We would like to sit down with the employers and work something out for them to do more. We’ve been talking about this issue for a couple of years with them. And at this point, we think it’s very important that there be legislation statewide that provides just the minimum of what you’d expect an employer to do, such as active shooter training, for members to get de-escalation training so that if they are coming into contact with these situations on a regular basis, they at least know what to do. Where we’ve had some of these incidents where there’s been an active shooter, the only person in the store that knew what to do was a 17 year old kid because he had had active shooter training in high school.

ES: Are there any other specific demands on the employers?

KF: There is a bill pending which we are sponsoring, called California Senate Bill 553. And that bill, which is a statewide measure, would require these employers to do a couple of really simple things. One is provide in-person training with an expert in active shooter response and de-escalation training. It would make sure that employers do not have any policies requiring rank and file retail workers to engage shoplifters in any way or provide security type services. And that security would have to be provided by trained security guards because many of the stores don’t have security guards. And then one other thing it would require, which this just seems like a no brainer, is that they keep track of violent incidents. So they would be required to track them so that we could at least look and see where they’re occurring, how many are occurring, in what areas.

ES: How’s the morale in stores?

KF: You know, it hasn’t been great since the pandemic. To tell you the truth, we never really have gotten back to a place where people really feel comfortable or satisfied with their jobs in either the grocery stores or the drugstores. Ever since the pandemic, there’s been a staffing crisis. So people have been asked to do more with less staff. And it’s now been going on more than three years. So folks are tired. They have never gotten a break. A lot of our members have symptoms of PTSD. But they’ve just continued to work. We’ve had a lot of members quit. People are leaving this industry if they can find some other kind of work.

ES: What role do you feel unions are playing for their workers that non-unionized workers are missing out on?

KF: We do have some really important things in our contracts that help. So safety was a big issue in our negotiations, in both negotiations that we had with both drug and grocery employers in 2021 and 2022. So now in all of our stores, we do have health and safety committees. Every grocery store has two health and safety monitors and they do monthly store walks where they can find out what the health and safety issues are and have meetings with store management. So they have a voice in what’s happening. And that has helped in many ways make the workplaces safer.

But when it comes to the violent incident situation, we have not gotten a good response, which is why we’ve turned to the legislature. And are trying to get Senate Bill 553 passed into law so that there would be some very minimal standards that the companies have to comply with. It’s been passed by the Senate. It needs to get on to the floor of the Assembly and get voted on by the middle of September. So we’re really in crunch time right now.

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