Business & Economy

Grocery workers added to state’s essential persons list

An empty frozen food rack at Trader’s Joe’s in South Burlington last week. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

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The Vermont Department of Public Safety has added grocery store workers to its list of essential persons such as law enforcement officers, utility and telecommunications workers, and health professionals.

The designation, released Wednesday, means that grocery workers are eligible for free child care through April 6 at the school-based child care centers that the state is setting up.

And it shows the important role that grocery workers are playing on the front lines of a fast-changing disaster that has scared consumers into buying more than they need, emptying grocery store shelves of paper goods and other staples.

While restaurants, stores, schools, and workplaces have closed, and public health officials have advised people to stay home, grocery store workers are coming in contact with thousands of people every day as they work at cash registers or in grocery aisles.

Customers have been “pretty reasonable” for the most part, said Pamela Trag, who owns the Quality Market in Barre and the Hardwick Village Market in Hardwick, though Trag has run out of several items in the last few weeks.

“We did have an incident where someone got out of control and slapped one of my employees with a flyer, yelling at her that it was false advertising because we were out of some sales product,” said Trag. “My answer to that is, you know, we have no control over the fact we ran out of some products.”

The goal of the Department of the Public Safety designation is to limit the spread of COVID-19 infections and make sure vital services remain in place, said Mike Schirling, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.

The state Division of Emergency Management, which is part of Schirling’s department, always has an emergency management plan on file. It’s updated annually by statute, but officials have been working to refine it to fit the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an unprecedented challenge, said Schirling, who has been working with hundreds of state and municipal officials, grocery managers, and others to create the new plan.

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In many emergencies — such as the devastating flooding created by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 — the disaster only affects part of the state, meaning there are resources in other parts to draw from. Help is also available out of state in most cases. But with a pandemic that is affecting everyone on the globe, Vermont officials have had to be very creative.

“This is an interesting time,” said Schirling on Thursday morning. “Where in emergencies we think of essential services as the basics of power, water and emergency service provision, that is pretty vastly expanded at this point,” he said.

It is hoarding that has made life difficult for workers at grocery stores, not an interruption in supplies.

As news about the impact of the COVID-19 virus in other countries started to spread in the U.S. in February, consumers’ focus on grocery stores intensified. Shoppers started stocking up — first on safety masks and hand sanitizer, and then on food and other goods — as a sizable number of cases was reported on the West Coast. Fears intensified as schools, restaurants, child cares and many businesses closed or sent people home to work remotely. As a result, many grocery stores have repeatedly run out of toilet paper, bread and other goods.

Empty potato bins at Trader Joe’s in South Burlington last week. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Public officials and even celebrities have asked consumers to refrain from buying too much or from hoarding, but it is still going on now, with uneven results. The Hannaford chain — which is out of potatoes in some places — is so busy that on Thursday it suspended its pick-up and delivery service through March because it needed workers to restock shelves.

On Thursday, Erin Sigrist, the president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, testified remotely to lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee about ways to mitigate the hoarding. Like Trag, Sigrist said some warehouse employees are working 14-15 hour days — up from 8-10 hours — and that distributors are hiring more commercial truck drivers to make sure products are delivered on time. She’s also working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to amend some truck weight limits.

“We can, within reason, have more product on trucks, so that there can be more products in the stores sooner rather than later,” she said.

State Rep. Mike Marcotte, who owns a convenience store and gas station in Newport, said he’s getting his deliveries on time.

 “People are hoarding and buying things when they really don’t need to worry about it, so they’ve made some shortfalls in stock,” said Marcotte, R-Coventry. “But things are starting to get restocked again.”

To assist grocery workers in staying on the job, the state has created an online form that will help families with members on the essential persons list to find child care in schools and at the licensed child care centers that have remained open. Gov. Phil Scott ordered all schools and state-regulated child care programs closed from March 18 through April 6.

Scott directed schools to provide care to enrolled students — and if possible other students — up to 8th grade, and encouraged regulated child care programs to provide care for the children of people on the essential persons list.

Hannaford Brattleboro
The paper products aisle is empty in Brattleboro’s otherwise fully stocked Hannaford supermarket. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Others on the list include people working in criminal justice, firefighters and other first responders, Vermont National Guard personnel, utility and telecommunications workers, sanitation workers, health care providers, and some state workers.

Under grocery workers, the list includes others in the supply chain, such as delivery drivers.

All of Vermont’s 251 towns are required by law to retain their own emergency management plans, including a list of assets they have available to the state if needed. A draft of the new essential persons list was completed on Wednesday afternoon, Schirling said.

Schirling described the essential persons list as a balancing act between the need for some workers and the imperative to keep as many people socially isolated as possible to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

“It could change on a day-to-day basis, like literally everything else is,” he said of the list. “We could include or exclude groups from essential service as the situation on the ground continues to unfold.”

Child care is the only need that the agencies have identified for people designated as essential, Schirling added. He said he thinks a lot of community members are helping each other with things like rides and meal deliveries. 

Kit Norton contributed reporting to this story.

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