With the world on edge and panicked shoppers picking shelves clean, grocery store workers are beginning to learn just how essential they are.
So are their employers, who have begun handing out temporary raises and cash bonuses for workers who have scrambled to meet unprecedented demands in the time of Covid-19.
The raises are being touted as a reward for worker loyalty and dedication – and they are – but there's more to it than that, according to Jerry Newman, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus and compensation expert at the University at Buffalo School of Management.
"Jobs that have risk associated with them usually have a commensurate stipend," he said.
Working in a grocery store in the midst of a global pandemic means being exposed to as many as thousands of people per day, usually in close quarters and with little or no protective gear.
The job conditions are also more stressful and the work has changed, Newman said.
"Having to scrub down holding racks and that type of physical labor is much more prevalent and onerous than in the pre-Covid world," he said.
Higher wages are one way to keep workers on the job when the going gets tough. But at the same time, Newman said, grocery store employment is one of the few secure jobs available at a time when the economy has been thrown into chaos, and entire industries have been idled.
"So in a peculiar sense, this is a good gig," Newman said.
Wegmans has increased both hourly and salaried workers' pay by $2 per hour. The increase is retroactive to March 1, and will last through the end of April with a possible extension. Wegmans has rolled out additional coronavirus-related worker benefits, including enhanced disability pay and a voluntary leave program with job protections.
As of Sunday, Tops Markets increased hourly workers' pay by $1 for full-time workers and 50 cents for part-time workers "in appreciation of our associates' hard work and dedication," said Tops spokesperson Kathleen Sautter. The pay scale will remain in effect until April 18, and applies to all full- and part-time hourly workers at the company's stores and warehouses, including any temporary workers who have been hired to help with the current rush.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and potentially adjust the time frame if necessary," Sautter said.
Tops has faced a backlash over part-time workers getting a smaller raise than full-timers for doing the same work.
"We’re just trying to incentivize our people and we did what we felt was best," Sautter said.
Dash's Market raised its hourly workers' pay by the same rate as Tops; $1 for full-timers, 50 cents for part-timers, but the wage is retroactive to March 15.
"That way they will see the increase in their checks already this Thursday. That was important to Joe," said Dash's director of operations Mark Mahoney, referring to the grocery chain's owner Joe Dash.
He said full-timers received a larger increase because those workers are typically in more demanding roles.
Hourly Walmart workers who have been on the job since March 1 will see bonuses in their paycheck April 2. Full-timers will receive a $300 bonus, while part-timers will receive $150.
“We want to reward our associates for their hard work and recognize them for the work that is in front of us," said Doug McMillon, Walmart president and CEO, in a statement.
Whole Foods increased all part- and full-time hourly workers' wages by $2 through the end of April.
Employees at BJ's Wholesale Club will receive an extra $2 per hour beginning Monday through at least April 12. At the end of March, managers and "key personnel" at stores and distribution centers will receive one-time bonuses ranging from $500 to $1,000, the company said. The company also enhanced its paid leave policy, adding up to 14 days of paid leave for any employee placed under mandated quarantine, and some company-paid time off for employees who test positive for coronavirus (to be used with accrued sick time).
At Target, workers will be paid an additional $2 per hour effective through at least May 2. Team leads, who oversee store departments, will receive bonuses in April ranging from $250 to $1,500. Workers who are pregnant, 65 years old or older, or have underlying health risks can access up to 30 days of paid leave. The company has also enhanced its sick leave policies.