Dancy is a front-end supervisor overseeing the store’s cash registers, self-checkout kiosks, customer service and liquor departments. In late December he worked 11 straight days because of staffing shortages caused by the spread of the highly-contagious Covid-19 variant.
Now the rapid spread of Omicron is putting new pressure on essential workers already worn down after nearly two years working through a deadly pandemic. But, unlike millions of office workers, they can’t stay home and make a living.
Staffing at the store where Dancy works is at its worst level since the pandemic, lower even than during the first wave in March 2020, said the 62-year-old shop steward for the local United Food and Commercial Workers union. Employees have quit in recent months and management has not replaced them, he added. The store has had to close early on some days because of staffing constraints.
The latest surge of workers calling out sick adds extra responsibilities for Dancy and the employees who have to keep shelves stocked, help customers and complete other tasks. Some customers also shop without a mask, making him feel unsafe.
“Every day has been a struggle,” Dancy said. “I feel like I’m overexerting myself. I’m constantly tired.”
Two weeks ago, he worked on a crowded Sunday when the store was short staffed. It “was the first time in 30 years I thought ‘I don’t know much longer I can and want to do this.'”
Can’t stay home
The demographics of the more than 30 million frontline essential workers differ significantly from those who can work remotely.
For example, women, who make up 47.4% of the nation’s overall workforce, account for 50.5% of the nearly seven million grocery workers. Black people represent 11.9% of the workforce, but account for 14.2% of grocery employees.
Hesitant to impose mandates, they also have not required frontline workers to get vaccinated. Industry groups have sued to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for large employers. Rather, companies are offering cash bonuses and other incentives to encourage workers to get vaccinated.
“Too few are earning enough money just to get by,” the researchers said.
Mariah Molina, who works at a Target store in Lynchburg, Virginia filling customers’ online delivery and curbside pickup orders, said she’s struggling to keep up as Omicron decimates staffing levels.
“We’re still getting a whole lot of orders every day. It’s harder because we don’t have as many people helping us,” said Molina, a member of the worker advocacy group Target Workers Unite.
Morale is low at the store, she said, and her co-workers are frustrated and overworked. She believes Target should give employees hazard pay to reward them for working under difficult conditions.
After working at Target since the start the pandemic, Molina has started to look for jobs outside the retail and service industries.
“It would be a lot less stressful and a lot less physically demanding,” she said.