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Store workers caught in middle as wearing masks becomes 'political issue'

Last year, Walmart and Kroger asked workers to gently encourage gun-carrying customers to leave their firearms outside. The ill-defined policies put employees in a difficult, even dangerous position, thrusting them onto the front lines of a contentious national debate. 

Now it's happening again. This time the issue is shoppers wearing masks inside grocery stores. While many retail chains recommend the practice to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, so far only one big national retailer -- Costco, whose shoppers all pay an annual membership fee -- has required it. A few hard-hit states like New York and New Jersey have mandated face coverings in public places, but the patchwork of regulations just muddies the issue.

That's put retail employees in the unenviable position, once again, of having to decide whether or not to confront customers. It's a hot-button issue that's roiling the nation as President Donald Trump and his supporters push to reopen the economy quickly while epidemiologists and some state governors advocate a slower approach. Making matters worse, the temporary pay increases that some chains launched back in March are starting to expire, while the deadly virus has not.

"People in my store are scared to death to ask people to wear masks," said Kristine Holtham, 53, a meat-department worker at a Kroger in Lansing, Mich. "It's like telling them to throw their gun away."

Holtham was one of several supermarket workers who shared their experiences on a call hosted by the UFCW, the union that represents more than 900,000 grocery workers. One time, Holtham recalled, she asked a male customer to don a mask, which is required in public enclosed spaces in Michigan. The man refused, saying he didn't "give a damn" about her health.

"That's the last day I asked anyone to wear one," she said. "It started out as a safety issue and it's now a political issue."

A spokeswoman for Kroger said that the company "will continue to listen to our associates and take steps to ensure their safety and well-being."

Kroger, Walmart and other retailers have sanitized stores, offered paid emergency leave policies, limited customer traffic, installed plexiglass "sneezeguards" and bought millions of masks and gloves for store employees, among other measures.

But employees remain skittish, and their fears are more than just theoretical. A security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Mich., was shot and killed earlier this month after he told a customer that her child had to wear a face mask to enter the store.

And the virus remains a threat. At least 68 UFCW members have died so far from COVID-19, International President Marc Perrone said Wednesday, and more than 10,000 have become infected or exposed. Last month, the union debuted a campaign to encourage shoppers to wear masks and gloves and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Now, with deaths rising, the UFCW plans to get more aggressive and publicly shame retailers that, in its view, are not doing enough to protect workers.

"We are preparing options to ensure that every American knows which supermarket companies stood by their workers and their families and which did not," Perrone said in a statement.

At Walmart, the nation's largest grocer and a non-union shop, just 40% of 1,582 employees surveyed online in early May said that they trust the company to keep them safe, according to United For Respect, a labor advocacy group that's often critical of the world's largest retailer. The survey only represents a small slice of Walmart's massive U.S. workforce, and was conducted via targeted ads on social media to self-identified Walmart employees, so cannot be independently verified.

Walmart declined to comment about the survey. Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said Tuesday that supporting its workforce amid the pandemic is the company's top priority. "Their physical safety, financial health and emotional well-being have been at the top of our list," he said.

Still, workers remain on edge. Said one poster on an online message board frequented by Walmart employees: "I never thought I would see the day I'm scared of customers."

retail-masks

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