Business

Grocery stores are cutting opening hours, services as Omicron infects workers




Some US supermarkets reduce opening hours and cut services as Covid-19’s Omicron variant infects cashiers, excavators and warehouse drivers, which increases the grocery chains’ staffing challenges.

Before the Omicron variant hit the U.S. northeast, supermarket chain Stew Leonard’s with seven stores returned to normal, according to CEO Stew Leonard Jr. Customer traffic in stores increased, pick-up and delivery to the home decreased, food. samples returned to storefronts and buffets reopened, he said.

The chain, which operates locations in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, has reached a 90% vaccination rate for employees, Leonard said. But Covid-19 cases increased over the past month: The week before Christmas, Stew Leonard’s had about 30 of its 3,000 employees quarantined or isolated, according to the CEO. By December 26, there were 100, and last Thursday the company lacked over 200 employees for Covid-19 infections and exposures.

“We kind of feel like we have to brace ourselves for round two,” Mr. Leonard said.

Giant Eagle Inc. has avoided closing some of its 470 stores during the Omicron wave by adjusting opening hours and sending employees from the company’s office near Pittsburgh to help refill supermarkets, according to Vic Vercammen, the company’s compliance manager. who heads the company’s compliance officer. pandemic response. The regional grocery chain has seen an increase in employee Covid-19 cases that reflect the area’s case numbers, he said.

Shoppers leave a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Columbus, Ga.


Photo:

ELIJAH NEWS / REUTERS

At Piggly Wiggly stores in Alabama and Georgia, executives over-plan workers provided no employees come, said Keith Milligan, the 17-store chain inspector. The company, which is a franchisee of New Hampshire-based Piggly Wiggly LLC, has also hired people from temp agencies to work in their department stores who receive and store products before they reach store shelves.

Supermarkets have struggled to hire and retain workers during the pandemic. Managers have said that unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks made it harder to find people willing to work in their stores. Some managers and store workers have said that fears of working in public and potentially spreading or incurring Covid-19 keep potential employees out of the labor market. Employees’ spokesmen have said that even with public payments, many hourly employees still struggle.

There were almost a record 10.6 million vacancies at the end of November, according to preliminary data from the Ministry of Labor, including over one million in retail stores. Trade union leaders have pointed to wear and tear and the lack of steady replacement in the food industry with high turnover.

Union workers strike outside a King Soopers grocery store in Broomfield, Colorado on January 12.


Photo:

Chet Strange / Bloomberg News

Harris Teeter supermarkets, owned by Kroger Co.

and operates primarily in the Southeastern United States, recently said that most of their stores will close an hour earlier at 21:00, with effect from 10 January, so that employees can refill their shelves, clean shops and better prepare for the next day. The company said the decision was not made due to staff shortages, but to give workers more time to stock up and clean stores.

On Wednesday, about 8,400 unionized workers at Krogers King Soopers stores in Denver went on strike, pushing for higher wages and expanded benefits. The company called the move ruthless, and said they hired temps to help store employees.

Fresh Encounter Inc., a supermarket chain of 100 stores based in Ohio, has closed most stores at 10pm for the past three months, as opposed to operating 24 hours a day before the pandemic, to accommodate staff shortages.

In recent months, most of the chain’s delicatessen departments have been closed at 5pm, compared to 9pm to 10pm previously, because more than half of the company’s delicatessen teams have been on sick leave, said Michael Needler Jr., the chain’s manager. executive. Fresh Encounter sells fewer items that require practical labor, such as store-bought chicken salad and certain varieties of pieces of meat, he said.

To help fight Omicron, the Biden administration is opening several Covid test sites and delivering 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez breaks down why testing is still a pain in the US, two years into the pandemic. Photo illustration: David Fang

“The staffing situation started very difficult,” Needler said. “Putting Omicron vacancies on top of that makes it very, very stressful.”

Industry leaders said that new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allows some people to return to work after five days of isolation, has helped the shortage of staff. In supermarkets, managers are pushing employees to be vaccinated and boosted, in addition to raising mask quality requirements and re-implementing some early pandemic cleaning routines.

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

Most Harris Teeter supermarkets now close an hour earlier, allowing employees to stock up on shelves and clean stores. A Harris Teeter supermarket in Washington, DC


Photo:

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Federal President Robert Newell Jr. said he was concerned that the combination of harder work, longer hours and the risk of infection would exacerbate an already difficult environment for grocery workers. “If it continues, it will definitely create a bigger problem than we already have,” he said.

At LaBonne’s Market, a four-store Connecticut chain, demand for pick-up and drop-off delivery has increased by about 50% in the weeks since Christmas, said CEO Bob LaBonne Jr. Cross-trained employees have facilitated the transition, said LaBonne, and he has not yet had to close stores early or close on Sundays, as he did for seven weeks in 2020.

As of Wednesday, 8% of Mr. LaBonne’s workforce is in quarantine or isolation, he said, and he monitors local case numbers, including those at his wife’s hospital workplace. “They expect the peak to be in two weeks,” he said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Write to Jaewon Kang at jaewon.kang@wsj.com

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