- Courtesy Of Abbie Curtis
- From left: City Market employees and union officials Noele Leavey, Andy Decelles and Jake Green
City Market, Onion River Co-op management and union officials agreed on Monday afternoon to an "appreciation" bonus for employees who are working during the coronavirus pandemic, general manager John Tashiro told Seven Days.
The bonus will give full-time employees a raise of $120 a week, per 40 hours of work, retroactive to March 15 and extending to May 8, he said. Part-time workers will receive a prorated bonus based on hours worked. The agreement was reached in the third discussion between the two parties. The union represents nearly 300 co-op employees.
"With this situation, as you can imagine, first and foremost, staff safety is our highest priority," Tashiro said. "Along with [safety of] customers and members."
Jake Green, chief steward of Local UE 203, the union that represents City Market employees, is a grocery stocker at the downtown store. On behalf of the union's executive board, Green sent an email to Seven Days about the agreement.
"We hope that this agreement, which was reached very quickly due to an outpouring of community support, shows what unionized workers are capable of achieving, and serves as an example to other employers of how workers deserve to be compensated," he wrote. "Management made us fight for this victory, and we are proud of what we have achieved."
Earlier in the day on Monday, Green, 23, explained that the union last week sought a raise of $5 an hour as a form of "hazard" pay for working during the rapidly accelerating health crisis. Employees around the country have echoed that request, not only at groceries but also at distribution and delivery businesses, including Amazon and Instacart.
"I think there's a lot of general uncertainty and anxiety spread out among everyone, from the most vulnerable people to people who really thought that the world was a totally secure place for them," Green said. "The current health crisis has brought a lot of people's perceptions of how safe the world is crashing down. I think that's especially reflected in a place that is such a hub of community activity."
With two locations in Burlington, the co-op has about 13,500 members, according to its website.
Other area grocery stores have given raises to their employees during the pandemic. Grocery stores are considered an "essential" service, even as the federal government has told people to stay home through the end of April.
At Hannaford and Shaw's, full-time hourly employees recently received a pay raise of $2 an hour, according to the companies. (Last week, an employee at Shaw's in Middlebury tested positive for the coronavirus.) Mehuron's Market in Waitsfield gave its employees a $250 bonus in the last pay period and will give them another bonus next month, co-owner Bruce Hyde said.
With senior employees and those with underlying risk factors not currently working, the store is operating with a "skeletal" crew of about 35 people, Hyde said.
"The more you understand the reality of how exposure works, the scarier it is," said Hyde, 36. He assumes he'll be exposed to the virus.
"Ultimately, there's not a way to make it through a shift without someone else inadvertently breaking a social-distancing guideline," Hyde continued. "It's impossible."
Cashiers are wearing N95 masks donated by a friend who's a woodworker, he noted. Community members have sewn cotton masks for other employees.
"We don't need thanks right now, or feel-good vibes," Hyde said "We need support."
The bonus for employees at City Market follows a series of precautionary measures the co-op has implemented in an effort to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus. These include reducing store hours to allow more time for cleaning, prepackaging bulk items and installing Plexiglas guards at the cashier stations.
Though City Market saw a substantial boost in sales earlier in March, after the announcement of the state's first COVID-19 case, sales have declined since.
"In the conversations that we just had with the union, we wanted to really value our staff and put forward some kind of compensation," Tashiro said. "[But] in the last week, our sales have been declining pretty significantly."
About 900 food retailers in Vermont employ roughly 19,000 people, according to Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association.
In the past two weeks she's heard from an increasing number of businesses about their intent to do all they can to support their employees, Sigrist said.
"But they're obviously working within finite resources, and they're trying to keep all of their employees at the same time," she said. "They're doing the best they can to figure out what is possible within their situation."
Green, the grocery stocker at City Market, said the anxiety of the situation is tiring. During the workday, he washes his hands regularly, changes his gloves often and tries to maintain an appropriate distance between himself and coworkers and customers. It's a "scary time" to work in a grocery store, he acknowledged.
"It's a constant anxiety that hangs out at the back of my mind, and it does take its toll," he said. Green graduated last year from the University of Vermont, where he majored in philosophy.
"I end up more exhausted after shifts, which I think is unfortunate," he continued, "because fatigue is a risk factor for the immune system working properly. And it might put me more at risk of contracting the virus if I were exposed to it."