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The workers who feed America are exhausted. Now they face Omicron

By Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN Business

Editor’s note: A previous version of this report said Fight for $15 advocate Deatric Edie was currently a manager at a McDonald’s restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, and that she was worried that the restaurant was not prioritizing safety. CNN Business was not able to independently verify that Edie was a McDonald’s manager at the location she provided or that she has been employed at a McDonald’s restaurant since October 2020. McDonald’s did not comment on Edie’s employment status. This article has been updated to reflect that.

Former McDonald’s manager Deatric Edie was hospitalized last year after getting Covid-19. She missed two months of work, while her bills piled up and an eviction notice was slapped on her door.

She describes the experience as “the scariest thing you can ever imagine in your life. I don’t want to go through that again.”

Edie has diabetes and is “very concerned” about the Covid-19 Omicron variant and rising coronavirus cases.

She wants McDonald’s to “force” the issue of safety on its franchisees and customers — to “push the efforts on safety” — and is frustrated that the company isn’t requiring customers to wear masks.

Edie — a prominent member of Fight for $15, which advocates for stronger wages and benefits for workers, and an outspoken critic of McDonald’s -— is pressing for more than just better Covid-19 safety protections. She wants McDonald’s to raise wages, guarantee paid sick leave, and provide health insurance — the “biggest thing” she wants — for all workers, regardless of franchise status. (McDonald’s this year said it was raising wages at company-owned restaurants.)

She works three different jobs in the fast-food industry, often waking up at 5:30 a.m. and working until 2:00 the next morning. Sometimes, she sleeps in her car in the McDonald’s parking lot and goes back during the day to take quick naps. But she still struggles to pay her bills.

“My body is tired but I still go because I need it,” she said.

The owner of the McDonald’s location Edie worked at before she got sick last year said it has robust hygiene standards, including contact tracing and mask mandates for staff.

“The health and well-being of my restaurant employees, customers and the Broward County community is my top priority,” said Brad Ashlin, the McDonald’s franchise owner, in a statement. “We are continuing to make changes to our restaurant operations to help keep our customers and crew safe in accordance with local regulations and guidance from health experts and the CDC as new variants of Covid emerge.”

The toll of low-wage work in America

The rapid surge of Omicron in the United States is putting new strain on store and restaurant staff already burned out and fed up after nearly two years of working through a deadly pandemic.

Often praised as heroes during the early days of the health crisis, the people who feed America can’t stay home. Workers such as cashiers, cooks, waitstaff, sales associates, stockers, custodians, store management and others, have faced endless challenges and safety hazards — for low wages and often without strong paid sick leave policies and benefits.

These customer-facing workers have grappled with daily exposure to a deadly virus while on the job. At least 213 retail and grocery workers have died from Covid-19 and more than 50,000 have been infected or exposed, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union.

These workers have also struggled with the quick end of hazard pay that some companies offered them during the start of the pandemic. They have also dealt with understaffed stores, angry and sometimes violent customers refusing to wear masks, brazen shoplifters “traumatizing” staff and store shootings.

It’s all taken a toll on workers’ physical and mental health, said Ken Jacobs, the chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The Omicron variant brings many of these issues back,” Jacobs said. “Frontline retail and restaurant workers are again facing difficult decisions about health risks and the need to put food on their own tables.”

Such conditions and pay have also contributed to a labor shortage in the service industry and campaigns for union representation at companies including Amazon, Starbucks and Dollar General.

Around 1.6 million available jobs in accommodation and food services and 1.1 million in retail were left unfilled in October, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The two industries recorded the highest rate of private-sector workers quitting in October.

Can’t stay home

Because of their sheer size, it’s impossible for top retail and restaurant employers to manage all of their customer and employees’ behavior at all times. Many chains have also responded to growing worker discontent by raising their minimum wages and expanding benefits.

But interviews with workers in recent days reveal their distress over working amid the latest Covid-19 wave. Workers are also exasperated with how they have been treated during the pandemic by their employers and say their voices have been ignored.

Liz Wesley, a floral manager at a King Soopers supermarket in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who makes $20.51 an hour, said she is “burned out from not having support in the store and feeling like we are not respected.”

At least five workers are out sick right now, she said, but the store — owned by Kroger— isn’t telling employees whether or not they’re out because they have Covid-19.

“I don’t feel like the company is keeping us informed,” Wesley said.

Customer behavior has been a major concern for her, and she is still troubled by a mass shooting in March at a King Soopers two hours away in Boulder.

Many customers have stopped wearing masks or keeping social distancing, she said, but they aren’t being held to any standards.

“King Soopers has put their sales and customers, even if they’re rude, unruly and unwilling to keep their distance, above the people working in the store.”

She’s worn down and feels taken for granted on the job. But she doesn’t have another choice.

“If I could have stayed home and made a living, I would have done it. I don’t have that luxury.”

King Soopers started a resource and support center for workers, families and others struggling from the March shooting. A King Soopers spokesperson also said the chain offers a “culture of opportunity” and careers with competitive pay and benefits, and flexible schedules.

Kroger has paid an extra $1,200 to part-time workers and $1,760 to full-time employees to “reward and recognize” them during the pandemic, a company spokesperson said in an email.

“The safety of our associates and customers remains our top priority,” the spokesperson said. As Kroger prepares to navigate the next phase of the pandemic, it’s modifying policies to “continue to encourage safe behavior.”

‘Frontline of the culture wars’

Retail workers’ allies are also rattled by the Covid-19 surge and are advocating for stronger safety protections in stores and higher pay for workers to help them afford rising grocery prices.

The UFCW sent a letter this month to 63 retail chains calling on them to take steps such as promoting mask wearing for customers, distributing free PPE to workers, re-establishing social distancing measures in stores, offering paid sick leave benefits for vaccine appointments, and implementing “inflation wage protection.”

Stores’ mask policies have also changed as the pandemic drags on and could again become a flashpoint.

Most chains stopped requiring customers to wear masks after vaccines rolled out in the spring, unless there were local mandates in place. Employers have been reluctant to put their workers in the difficult position of policing mask and safety rules for customers, and there have been scores of confrontations and even violence against workers over masking policies.

Walmart, Amazon and others in recent days have started requiring their workers to again wear masks but have made no changes to their policies for customers.

Brian Mayer, a professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Sociology, has studied grocery workers’ mental health during the pandemic. He and a team of researchers found that 20% of Arizona grocery store workers surveyed last year experienced severe levels of mental distress during the pandemic.

Customer behavior was one of the primary contributors to that stress.

Now, as Omicron spreads and masking becomes an important way to keep people safe, Mayer worries that workers will again be “on the frontline of the culture wars” around masks, social distancing and staying home.

If customers have gotten used to not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing in recent months, there may be more resistance to revert back, he said.

“It will be the frontline workers that customers regularly encounter like retail and restaurant workers that will bear the brunt of their frustrations.”

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