I’m a Whole Foods worker in Philadelphia. I feel like I’ve been drafted into a war.

Megan Murray Whole Foods employee with PPE April 2020

Megan Murray

Megan Murray Whole Foods employee with PPE April 2020

Megan Murray

My morning starts with a temperature check in a makeshift tent in the parking garage. None of us signed up for this.

Megan Murray, a front-end employee at Whole Foods Market in Philadephia, has kept reporting to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The job used to consist of collecting carts, stocking drawers and bagging groceries. Now, all Murray does is clean.

Although nurses, doctors, and paramedics are at highest risk of contracting the virus at work, many of America’s three million grocery workers, like Murray, believe it’s only a matter of time until they get sick, too. Supermarkets have been deemed essential businesses, and remain one of the few places where the public can still congregate. But social distancing is difficult within a store’s walls, making safety an urgent concern. So far, at least 41 grocery workers have died from Covid-19, and thousands more have tested positive. Grocery stores “are, in fact, transmission points of this virus,” a union official said on Monday, calling for more employee protections.

The Counter is seeking short essays about how Covid-19 has impacted American life through the lens of food. How have the pandemic’s emotional, physical, personal, and professional disruptions recast your daily routine, eating habits, and appetite?

Read a brief intro and pitch guidelines here.

Under pressure from workers, unions and politicians, Whole Foods, and its parent company Amazon, have ramped up safety measures. Before they clock in, employees check their temperatures. During their shifts, they wear gloves and masks. Plastic screens are installed at registers to create some separation between customers and cashiers. The company also grants two weeks of paid sick leave for employees who test positive for the virus or are quarantined, and raised wages by $2 an hour in response to call for hazard pay. 

For workers like Murray, 22, those protections are a start. But they may not be enough to offset the sudden danger of the workplace. As Murray explained over the phone, working at Whole Foods doesn’t just feel like a job any more. Instead, Murray uses a wartime analogy to describe the situation: It feels like being drafted.

—Sam Bloch

Whole Foods medical tent used to test employee temperatures during Covid-19 pandemic, April 2020

The temperature checkpoint: a makeshift tent in the parking garage

Megan Murray: Before the restrictions, there were people who lived around the corner and came in two or three times a day. In the cafe seating area, they had their breakfast and read the paper. A number of unhoused people used it for shelter and as a place to microwave their food—that kind of thing. Now, for safety reasons, that area is totally closed. We removed all the tables and chairs and now it’s where Amazon Prime Now shoppers pack orders to deliver to customers.

We started to see the impact of the pandemic in the first or second week of March. The main change was to adjust hours. We used to be open from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm. Now we’re open to the general public from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm. And 7:00 to 8:00 is only supposed to be for team members to shop and for people who are 60 or older. But that’s kind of not true, because we have Amazon shoppers filling online orders then, as well. That hour has actually turned out to be especially busy, which seems counterintuitive, given that it’s supposed to be a time for older people to safely shop. 

I’m kind of glad to be able to clean. It gives me a sense of control.

We have standard operating procedures about hourly cleaning. Every belt and pin pad, the clock-in clock upstairs, any public water dispenser—it all has to be cleaned every hour. We set up boxes of paper towels called Tuff-Job Wipes all around the store. There’s a vestibule in front where carts are returned. I keep a spray bottle out there and spray every single cart that comes through. And where an express checkout line normally is, that’s my basket soaking area—where I spray and wipe every single basket. It feels like all I do there now is clean carts and baskets. 

Inside Whole Foods medical tent during Covid-19 pandemic, where employee temperatures are checked (April-2020)

Megan Murray

Inside the medical tent, there’s a contactless reader that someone holds an inch or two from your forehead. It doesn’t seem to work very well.

I’m kind of glad to be able to clean. It gives me a sense of control. Even if it’s minor or imagined control. There’s a sense when you go in to work that you’re subject to the decisions of other people. If customers decide to come in without a mask—well, we can’t enforce that. And they’re going to talk to us within three feet. But because I spend most of my time cleaning, I feel like I can make a difference in how safe the store is.

Our store is really, really tiny. Before all this happened, I joked that I spent 75 percent of my day there in people’s way. We’ve limited the amount of people in the store to 50 at a time, but that’s just the customers. That number doesn’t include employees. So the six-feet social distancing rule is really kind of unrealistic. 

People are stocking up on non-perishable items—like a lot of frozen food, and paper towels and toilet paper whenever they’re on the shelves—but there are still people who come in for two or three inconsequential, non-essential items. It’s a big issue for my co-workers at the registers. They get really frustrated and upset when they have to ring someone up for two bouquets of flowers. We’re trying to limit the amount of people in the store. But there are still people who I see come in there every day. 

Team members are required to wear a mask now. I bring my own, which fits better, but after an eight-hour shift, it’s not fun. I’m sweating from moving 40-pound bundles of bags, running up and down the stairs, so it gets humid under that mask. It’s really uncomfortable. But I keep reminding myself that coronavirus is probably more uncomfortable. 

Last week we started temperature checks for team members before we clock in. The setup is in the parking garage—it’s like a makeshift medical tent, and there’s a contactless reader that someone holds an inch or two from your forehead. The first time, my temperature read 97-something degrees. The next day, it read 93, which is like a hypothermia temperature. I retook it and it read 95. The third time, it didn’t even get a read. I was like, is this even working? The answer I was given, basically, is that if I don’t have a fever, I’m good. I personally want more clarity on that. But I also think our customers would not be thrilled to know we are getting cleared, basically, with no accurate readings. It seems like a formality. There’s some talk of changing the approach but so far, things are just going on, business as usual.

Right now, you can’t get paid time off unless you have a positive test or been advised to quarantine. If we have a fever, we don’t automatically get it. We’re just sent home.

There’s a number of other things the company can do to make work safer. For one, offer preventive paid time off. Right now, you can’t get paid time off unless you have a positive test or been advised to quarantine. If we have a fever, we don’t automatically get it. We’re just sent home. We should also get hazard pay—at least double. There’s a sense among us that there’s a bunch of people who are working from home right now and making a lot more than us—including Whole Foods executives, of course. 

None of us signed up for this. It feels like we’ve been drafted into war, in a way. We’re receiving an additional two dollars of pay, but that puts us at $17 an hour. And as grocery store workers are dying, the sense among us team members is that it’s not worth it to potentially risk our lives for $17 an hour. The Wawa next door had a confirmed case. And there’s rumors the Acme had one, too. I feel like, for us, it’s only a matter of time. 

Megan Murray is a front-end employee at Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.