Grocery worker: Covid-19 outbreak makes self-check-out risky for customers and staff

Grocery worker: Covid-19 outbreak makes self-check-out risky for customers and staff
A grocery worker tells KIRO 7 they think self-check-out stands should be closed because they make it difficult to practice social distancing. (Katie McDowell/KIRO 7)

Grocery workers are telling KIRO 7 they want self-checkout registers shut down.

Workers say the system can place employees much closer to customers than the social distancing standard of six feet, brought on by COVID-19

We heard from a worker – who asked for anonymity for fear of being fired – who approached management about closing the self-check-out. They say their superiors shut that request down.

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“We had to keep them on and have them on. All the time, yes,” says the Seattle-area grocery worker.

The worker doesn’t like the self-checkout set-up at their store for employees, or customers.

“When you are placing something that you’ve scanned in your bag the person next to you, who is picking up the item they are going to scan, is now face to face with you,” they say.

How close are the registers? I went to the QFC on 5th and Mercer in Seattle and bought a dust mop. It measured out to 57 inches – less than five feet long.

When it was my turn to pay for it at the self checkout, I laid down the dust mop and it hit the register next to mine.

It was the very same story at the QFC on Dravus street in Seattle.

And at the Safeway in Ballard.

The grocery worker says, if there’s an issue at the self-check-out, they sometimes have to go to the register to fix it. That puts them very close to customers.

“If someone doesn’t want an item or they put the wrong number in, you have to go over. You can void from here, but you can’t fix it… you can’t help them put the right one in,” says the grocery worker.

I experienced that closeness firsthand. When I had issues scanning in my broom at one store, the attendant came right over and stood next to me to fix the error.

I asked them: is this what happens when somebody screws up like I did?

“You pretty much have to come over and do it,” the worker told me.

“We really feel like self-check-out stands do not work when we need to practice self-distancing in our stores,” says Sarah Cherin, chief of staff of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21.

Cherin’s union represents 20,000 grocery workers in our region.

“Are the attendants put in a no-win situation? Absolutely. We agree at this moment to shut those u-scans down as it’s impossible to keep the workers safe and the communities safe,” says Cherin.

But corporate spokespeople from both QFC and Safeway say they continue to abide by local, state, and national heath standards – which allow them to keep those self-check stands open.

“We’re trying to get customers get in and out as quick as possible.  Many customers have expressed a preference for the self-check-out because they don’t want people touching their items. When we are slow we use every other self-check.  When busy we try to move people along quickly,” says a statement from QFC.

And from Safeway:

“We’ve taken enhanced measures at every store location to clean and disinfect all our departments, restrooms and other high-touch points of the store continuously throughout the day, as well as a deep cleanse at the end of each business day, as well as for reducing the number of self-check-outs.”

They also say they are doing everything they can to protect their workers. Kroger – which owns QFC – has announced bonuses for front line workers and is also working to get masks and gloves for associates to wear on their shifts.

And there are more issues to weigh here. Public health officials want customers out of crowded areas like stores within ten minutes.

The state department of health spoke to grocers who gave their reasons for keeping self-check-outs open.

“Their sense was, if we did that, it would make the crowding in the other areas much longer. So in the end it seemed like an OK way to go,” says Lauren Jenks, assistant secretary for environmental public health with Washington’s Department of Health.

Jenks does agree that customers and staff should abide by the six foot rule should at self-checkouts.

“Yes, I think it’s better if they are six feet apart. I think if the person has to come and help you that the person shopping takes a couple of steps back,” says Jenks.

Jenks says the state will announce specific grocery store guidelines in the next week.

Until then, the anonymous grocery store worker wants you to know that your safety is as important to them as their own.

“We care about them very much and we’re doing everything we can to take care of them,” says the worker.