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OP-ED: Can we please stop spitting on grocery store workers?

Rob Tornoe
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
People, some with a mask, others without, walk along the Venice Boardwalk in Venice on July 5, 2020. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Just a few months ago, Americans rightly lauded grocery store employers as heroes — underpaid front line workers who braved the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic so households could put food on the table.

These days, not so much. Being on the front line now means dealing with tired, impatient customers who don’t want to follow the aisle arrows and for some reason, have a real problem wearing masks and following coronavirus restrictions.

In Harrisburg, a Giant shopper spit on the face of an employee after being told to wait to enter the store because of capacity limits. In Lansing, Mich., when a Kroger employee told a customer he needed to wear a face mask, the shopper shot back, “I don’t give a damn about your health.”

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I wish these were isolated incidents. In Pittsburgh, an irate customer crouched under a plastic barrier and spit on an employee’s face. In Mount Clemens, Mich., a former mayoral candidate assaulted a grocery worker and spit on police officers after being told to wear a mask.

And on an on. Months ago, we asked these underpaid workers with little to no job security to risk their health so we could stock our cabinets with Cheez-Its. In many cases, their own employers appeared to care more about profits then worker safety. Now we're tasking grocery workers with managing the public health by instructing agitated shoppers to follow coronavirus mandates.

It’s not as if working at a grocery store is a path for immunity to the pandemic. Last month, United Food and Commercial Workers International, which represents 1.3 million workers in the U.S., said at least 82 grocery store workers have died from COVID-19 and 11,507 have been infected. And most supermarket chains — places like Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target — aren’t even required to notify anyone if an worker dies or tests positive.

“People take drugstore and grocery store workers for granted,” Wendell Young, president of Local 1776 Keystone State of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told the Inquirer back in March. He was right then, and he’s right now.