Supermarkets Cut Hours, Services as Omicron Infects Workers

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Some grocers tap corporate employees, use temporary employment agencies to keep stores open

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According to chief executive Steve Leonard Jr., seven-store supermarket chain Steve Leonard’s was getting back to normalcy before the Omicron version came to the US Northeast. In-store customer traffic was rising, curbside pickup and home-delivery orders declined, food samples returned to stores and buffets reopened, he said.

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The chain, which runs locations in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, has reached a 90% employee-vaccination rate, Leonard said. But Covid-19 cases spiked over the past month: A week before Christmas, about 30 of Steve Leonard’s 3,000 employees were in quarantine or isolation, according to the CEO. As of December 26, it was 100, and last Thursday, the company was laying off more than 200 employees for further exposure to COVID-19.

“We feel like we have to bow down for the second round,” said Mr Leonard.

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Giant Eagle Inc. has refrained from closing any of its nearly 470 stores during the Omicron boom and has moved from its corporate office near Pittsburgh to help employees fill in supermarkets, according to the company’s chief compliance officer, Vic Verkammann. sent to the one who leads it. pandemic response. He said that the regional grocery chain has seen a rise in employee COVID-19 cases which reflects the case count of the area.

At Piggly Wiggly stores in Alabama and Georgia, managers are supervising workers under the assumption that some employees aren’t going to make it, said Keith Milligan, controller of the 17-store chain. The company, which is a franchise of New Hampshire-based Piggly Wiggly LLC, also hired people from temp agencies to work in its warehouses that receive and store products before they reach store shelves.

Supermarkets are struggling to hire and retain workers during the pandemic. Executives have said unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks have made it harder for people to find people willing to work at their stores. Some executives and store employees have said that fears of working in public and potentially spreading or contracting COVID-19 are pulling potential employees out of the job market. Employee advocates say that even after the government payment, those who work for many hours are still struggling.

According to preliminary data from the Labor Department, there were nearly a record 10.6 million job opportunities at the end of November, including more than a million in retail stores. Union leaders have pointed to the crash and lack of stable replacements in the high-turnover food industry.

Harris Teeter Supermarket, owned by Krogero Co.

And operating primarily in the US Southeast, it recently said most of its stores would close an hour before 9 p.m., effective January 10, so that workers can restock shelves, clean stores and To prepare better for the next day. The company said that the decision was not made because of staff shortage, but to give employees more time to store and clean.

On Wednesday, about 8,400 unionized workers at Kroger’s King Soopers stores in Denver went on strike, insisting on higher pay and expanded benefits. The company called the move reckless, and said it hired temporary workers to help employees shop.

Fresh Encounters Inc., a 100-store supermarket chain based in Ohio, has been closing most stores over the past three months at 10 p.m., versus 24 hours a day before the pandemic, to accommodate staffing shortages.

Chain chief Michael Needler Jr. said that in recent months, most of the chain’s daily department has been closing at 5 p.m. compared to 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., as more than half of the company’s deli team has become ill. . executive. He said Fresh Encounters is selling fewer items that require manual labor, such as store-made chicken salads and some types of meat cuts.

“The staffing situation started out very tough,” said Mr. Needler. “Layering in the omicron vacancies on top of it makes it very, very stressful.”

Industry officials said new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing some people to return to work after five days of isolation, has helped ease the workforce. In supermarkets, officials are prompting employees to vaccinate and promote as well as increase mask-quality requirements and reimpose some early-pandemic cleaning routines.

In New York state, where the daily average for COVID-19 cases has quadrupled from its previous high since last January, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 1500 said that of the 17,000 grocery workers, 1,000 usually represent the union. are either out of work. Away from quarantine, isolation or grocery work.

Union president Robert Newell Jr. said he worries that the combination of hard work, long hours and the risk of infection will worsen an already difficult environment for grocery workers. “If this continues, it will certainly create a bigger issue than we have ever before,” he said.

At Labon’s Markets, a four-store Connecticut chain, curbside pickup and delivery demand has increased nearly 50% in the weeks since Christmas, said CEO Bob Labon Jr. Cross-trained staff has eased the transition, Mr Labon said, and he has not yet needed to close stores early or close on Sundays, as he did for seven weeks in 2020.

As of Wednesday, 8% of Mr Labon’s workforce is in quarantine or isolation, he said, and he is looking at a number of local cases, including at his wife’s hospital workplace. “They are expecting the peak to happen in two weeks,” he said. “It will get worse before it gets better.”

Write Jaewon Kang at [email protected]

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