business news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times reports that there are heightened anxieties "shared by retail and fast-food workers in states like Mississippi and Texas, where governments have removed mask mandates before a majority of people have been vaccinated and while troubling new variants of the coronavirus are appearing. It feels like a return to the early days of the pandemic, when businesses said customers must wear masks but there was no legal requirement and numerous shoppers simply refused. Many workers say that their stores do not enforce the requirement, and that if they do approach customers, they risk verbal or physical altercations."

The Times goes on:  

"For many people who work in retail, especially grocery stores and big-box chains, the mask repeals are another example of how little protection and appreciation they have received during the pandemic. While they were praised as essential workers, that rarely translated into extra pay on top of their low wages. Grocery employees were not initially given priority for vaccinations in most states, even as health experts cautioned the public to limit time in grocery stores because of the risk posed by new coronavirus variants. (Texas opened availability to everyone 16 and older on Monday.)"


"The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 900,000 grocery workers, said this month that at least 34,700 grocery workers around the country had been infected with or exposed to Covid-19 and that at least 155 workers had died from the virus. The recent mass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., has only rattled workers further and added to concerns about their own safety."

The Times notes that "the differing state and business mandates have some workers worried about more confrontations. The retail industry was already trying to address the issue last fall, when a major trade group helped put together training to help workers manage and de-escalate conflicts with customers who resisted masks, social distancing and store capacity limits. Refusing service to people without masks, or asking them to leave, has led to incidents in the past year like a cashier’s being punched in the face, a Target employee’s breaking his arm and the fatal shooting of a Family Dollar security guard."

KC's View:

In my view, much about the story represents the ways in which we've approached the virus have gone off the rails.

First of all, I'd dispute the assertion by some workers, reported by the Times, about " how little protection and appreciation they have received during the pandemic."  I'm sure there have been places where that's true, but by and large, to my knowledge, retailers have done a terrific job of trying to protect and compensate employees - from safety precautions taken in store to, in some cases, tens of millions of dollars in hazard pay and bonuses.  Again, not everywhere … but in many places.

Rather than focusing on government-mandated hazard pay for grocery workers, lawmakers might be better off focusing on making sure that retail employees (and, importantly, their spouses/partners) have access to vaccines, and that shoppers have to wear masks when in stores.  And then, if employers want to pay out hazard pay, they can.

Taking this approach, I think, would go a lot farther in trying to protect employees' lives and livelihoods.