The First Drop: Essential Choices

I held quite a few jobs when I was a teenager, but I didn’t keep any of them for very long: sandwich maker, convention assistant, sunglasses assembler, salesman for a cable company. None of them were as well-regarded, or as remunerative, as bagging groceries at Bruno’s.

Those kids in my high school class who comprised the apron-wearing crew clocking in at the “nice” grocery store in my suburb of Sandy Springs– many of them boy scouts, honor students, or otherwise running with a group that was generally better behaved and smarter than I — made a nice pile of cash. There was a solid hourly base to begin with, and frequent tips from grateful upper-middle-class denizens who were happy to have someone young hoist their Cracklin’ Oat Bran and Cran-Grape into the minivan for them.

I know of a couple of kids who padded out their college funds considerably through Bruno’s, and a couple more who paid for their first cars through the same gig.

As reliable and wholesome as these young folks were, it’s hard for me to imagine them as “essential” at that point in their lives. It was a job for nice, smart guys and they moved on to nice professional lives as well — Brad became a lawyer, Jason an anesthesiologist. Russ is an accountant and Thadd flies planes, while one of the Poulakos twins is a town planner and the other works in insurance. But if Covid-19 had hit then, how would they have felt on the front lines? What would their parents have said?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately as I watch so much of the industry we cover wrestle with safety concerns in the wake of our current pandemic. Every day, more vulnerabilities reveal themselves as processing plants, factories and stores become outbreak hotspots. The inability of meat processing facilities to function without putting the lives of workers at severe risk has led to mass tragedy. There is more pain to come in the summer, when picking season will mean a risky choice between needed seasonal employment and the potential for viral infection. Meanwhile, stores like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Giant are reporting their own clusters of infection and death. Delivery drivers — the cavalry of the Direct to Consumer push — face their own tense decision between expenses and exposure.

These aren’t the decisions to open or close that people can make because they own the business — those decisions are fraught with their own horrible mix of pain and loss — but they are the special tragedy of workers who have to decide whether their jobs are, quite unexpectedly, worth dying for.

That’s not to say that some of these jobs didn’t hold risk before; certainly meat processing and other factory jobs feature the potential for injury every day. What the additional risk brought to the floor by COVID-19 has revealed, however, is just how important these jobs really are, and how we need to reconsider that importance as we rebalance our treatment of the workers in the food distribution equation.

Grocery chains tried to step up to the plate early on, recognizing that the role of the supermarket worker was all of a sudden being saluted with the ferocity of ambulance drivers and other frontline workers; many quickly raised pay and offered bonuses.

There’s a lot of talk of recovery from systemic disruption and a lot of discussion of pivots as necessary in the new normal of retailing. There are calls to review supply chains, to think more clearly about worker safety, to think more clearly about how to ensure a reliable food supply with less waste.

But as we think about the future of retail, the future of supply chains, I think we need to be aware that the essential nature of these jobs, these workers, isn’t something we should be considering just as the result of a pandemic. When I think about the kids I knew who were bagging at Bruno’s, yes, the money helped them out, but when it came down to it, they always had a choice to keep the gig or not. That, to me, is the essential difference.