Why Grocery Store Workers Are Making Less While Big Chains Clean Up

Have you ever bought groceries from a checker with the sniffles? If so, you’re probably not alone. In fact, many food retail employees can’t afford to miss work when they’re under the weather. Many don’t have medical coverage and few can cover lost wages when taking unexpected time off.

Janifer Suber, a clerk at Vons—a Los Angeles-based division of Safeway, Inc. with over 300 stores nationwide—says employees at her store often take matters into their own hands when a co-worker is sick. She recalls one instance when an employee had a stomach virus that had gotten so bad she missed several days of work, but only after co-workers had pooled their money to cover the co-pay for the doctor’s visit and the lost paycheck.

As Suber sees it, the lack of health coverage for food retail workers is also a public health issue. “Because you’re sick, you could pass on whatever you have to customers and other employees and that’s a chain reaction,” she warns. To consumers, she points out, “This affects your family. You’re going to take something that you shouldn’t take home to your kids, to your wife.”

When food retail companies refuse to pay workers adequately, it’s not just their colleagues who have to fill in the gaps. Taxpayers must also make up the difference to ensure their neighbors can get by. According to a new report called Shelved: How Wages and Working Conditions for California’s Food Retail Workers Have Declined as the Industry has Thrived (PDF), 36 percent of California’s food retail workers receive public assistance to meet basic needs, costing the state $662 million annually.

The report points out the cruel irony: “Workers who sell food in California, the largest producer of food in the U.S., are twice as likely as the general populace to be unable to afford sufficient quantities of the food they sell or the healthy kinds of food their families need, despite the financial health of the food retail industry.”

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