Feeding the Feeders’ Dedication

March 30, 2020

How companies treat workers now will determine how workers treat them once the crisis is over.

One of the most inspiring things about the coronavirus crisis has been the dedication of the workers, all along the food chain, who have been keeping the rest of us fed.

But as the crisis lingers, that dedication will itself have to be fed.

From the farmworkers harvesting crops, to the floor workers in the processing plants, to the supermarket clerks checking out groceries behind newly installed plastic shields, those who labor in the food chain are under two big sources of stress. One, of course, is the fear of catching COVID-19, especially for retail workers who have to interact with the public. The other comes from a higher workload, often involving mandatory overtime.

The measures their employers can take to relieve the first kind of stress are common-sense but limited: extra sanitizing, monitoring for signs of illness, getting retail customers to maintain social distancing. It’s the second kind where companies have a chance to show who they really are.

Some workers, both industrial and retail, are reportedly getting testy about having to work extra hours at faster paces to meet the ramped-up demand for retail food. Some processing companies, like PepsiCo and Mondelēz, have been able to pull the trigger and hire more workers to meet demand. More have been offering bonuses to sweeten the tough conditions. Some are giving one-time bonuses, topped (as far as I know) by J.M. Smucker’s $1,500. Danone is awarding a 15% pay increase; Cargill, Campbell and others are raising hourly pay by $2. Major grocers are taking similar measures.

And then there are those who take, um, the other approach.

A major meat processor announced that it’s not giving any extra pay or time off, but it will refrain from docking workers who catch COVID-19 and can’t come to work. Gee, thanks.

Probably no player in the food chain has benefited more from the virus crisis than Instacart. Online grocery delivery, which had been growing at a negligible pace for years, has zoomed: Nielsen estimates that e-commerce for consumer packaged goods rose 91% year-over-year for the week ending March 14. Instacart has announced plans to increase its workforce, the “gig workers” who pick grocery orders and/or deliver them, by 50%.

The existing 200,000 Instacart order-fillers, however, are none too happy. They basically have to face the same risks as regular grocery workers, only with none of the perks like health benefits, sick leave, time off, or a regular paycheck.

That’s why a bunch of them are trying to declare a strike for Nov. 3-5. Their demands are simple: Provide hand sanitizer, pay a hazard bonus of $5 per order, and increase the default tip amount on the Instacart app from 5% to 10%.

Instacart countered with hand sanitizer and an offer to reset the suggested tip on the app to whatever the customer tipped last time. Wouldn’t want to disturb the cheapskates by prodding their consciences too much, after all.

I’m sure Instacart management is taking into account that a lot of people are clamoring for jobs right now, and they’re in the driver’s seat. So far. But that mangy dog known as the long term may come around to bite them in the butt.

There’s a strong possibility that the current increase in online grocery shopping will last at least to some extent, as people who have never used it will realize how convenient it is. That means Instacart (and its competitors) will still need more workers after the crisis is over – and there will no longer be a huge pool of unemployed to fill that need.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, to the entire food supply chain, including processing. How you treat your workers in this situation will go a long way toward determining how they treat you when you need them in the future.

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