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Grocery Store Workers Thrust On Coronavirus Front Lines Are Overworked, Underpaid And Scared

A Jewel worker who makes less than $15 an hour said, "It's frustrating because I'm essential, but they don't pay us like we're essential."

Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska/DNAinfo
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CHICAGO — As the novel coronavirus rapidly spreads throughout the state and the country, restrictions on daily life in Chicago are growing. But grocery stores remain open — and grocery store workers in Chicago say they’re overworked, underpaid and scared.

“Going to work is horrible and leaving work is horrible,” one Jewel-Osco worker told Block Club. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution

The woman described the past week or so at her store as “insanity” with people stockpiling food and other supplies like toilet paper in mass quantities.

She said the doomsday preppers need to stop — not just because officials and experts say there’s no food shortage in the country, but also because their behavior is endangering the people around them.

“You don’t need to come in everyday. Please don’t come in everyday,” she said.

Because they’re surrounded by people all day long, grocery store workers are at high risk of catching the virus and spreading it in their communities.

RELATED: Hoarders Clearing Store Shelves Leave Little Food For SNAP Recipients Who Can’t Afford To Stock Up

That grim reality is taking a toll on the workers.

The woman who works at Jewel-Osco said she’s drinking more, not sleeping and having regular panic attacks.

A Trader Joe’s worker, who also asked to remain anonymous, said the paranoia comes in waves and that for a while he was having panic attacks as he was getting ready for work each day.

“There have been a couple days where I’ve gone in and I’m really, really anxious and I’m like, man, I shouldn’t be here,” he said.

Not all large grocery chains offer their employees paid sick leave, but the coronavirus has forced the chains to reconsider that policy.

For example, Kroger, which owns Mariano’s, is giving those who have contracted the virus or those who have to self-quarantine two weeks of paid sick leave, as is Jewel-Osco, according to a notice shared with Block Club.

Grocery chains around the country are stepping up cleaning efforts and some are designating special hours for elderly customers, who are more at risk of contracting severe coronavirus cases.

Both the Trader Joe’s and Jewel-Osco worker said while they feel like their companies are taking all of the right steps amid extremely difficult circumstances, they do feel undervalued and underpaid.

“It’s frustrating because I’m essential, but they don’t pay us like we’re essential,” the Jewel-Osco worker said. She makes just under $15 an hour after having worked for the company for several years.

The Trader Joe’s worker, who makes a little more than $20 an hour, said Trader Joe’s is “probably the best [grocer] to work for,” but the job itself doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

“Society needs to look at how they value work. … We’ve been told our whole lives that these aren’t important jobs, that these aren’t jobs that should be compensated,” he said.

“Somebody stocking pasta on a shelf may not seem like important work, but it’s necessary work to keep society functioning.”

Despite the poor conditions, grocery store workers in the Chicago area are rising the occasion. They say they’re working at a breakneck speed to make sure customers get the food they need, sometimes to the detriment of their own physical and mental health.

“We might be the only face people see for a while and if I’m going to do this, I’m going to get up tomorrow, put on a shirt, go to work. … I’ll be as cheerful as I can,” longtime Trader Joe’s worker Amanda Zwald, 53, said.

“I want to be a part of the solution, I want to help people, I want people to not be afraid. While I have no control over that, or any good answers for people, putting food on peoples’ tables is what we do.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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