On March 23, Juan Olmos got something unusual: a day off. For the previous eight, he'd worked 10-hour shifts lifting gallon jugs of water and 50-pound bags of dog food onto pallets to be shipped to Fred Meyer grocery stores across Oregon and Idaho.
Olmos is working 80 hours a week at the Fred Meyer Distribution Center, nearly double his pre-pandemic schedule.
"You can feel your body breaking down," says Olmos, 37. "Nobody wants to work that much. But at the same time, we kind of have to. Somebody's got to ship that stuff out. People are freaking out. It's got to get done."
For two weeks, Gov. Kate Brown has been closing businesses in the state and directing Oregonians to stay indoors. But that's only increased demand for groceries—and Fred Meyer, part of the Kroger Co., the largest grocery chain in the world, is demanding more from its employees to keep up.
In few places is that pressure more severe than at the distribution center in Clackamas, Ore., a building the length and width of a football field where forklifts skid across concrete, horns honking. The men at the forklift wheel shout, "Heads up!" as they remove pallets from orange metal shelves 30 feet high. A scent of bleach wafts through the closed-door facility.
Four workers interviewed by WW described conditions that allow for little respite. The employees, called "pickers," are on their feet for 10 hours a day.
"A pair of gloves used to last us a month," says warehouse worker Kyle Sieckmann, 29. "Now, with all the extra work and all these extra cases, we're going through gloves in a week and a half before they're destroyed."
The worst item to encounter? Damaged cans of wet cat food. "It smells like rotten eggs and fish put together," Sieckmann says. "Worse than garbage. Like if you let a fish sit in the sun."
In the past six weeks, he's seen the inventory of different items fluctuate as Oregonians hunkered down. "For the first couple of days, it was all toilet paper," says Sieckmann. "Then, for the next couple of days, it was canned goods. Now we got a lot of [demand for] cat litter."
As hundreds of Oregon small businesses lay off workers, Fred Meyer is one of the few companies that's hiring. But in the meantime, demand outstrips available labor, and overworked employees are feeling the brunt.
Fred Meyer received some unwanted attention last week after WW revealed that a worker at the Northeast Glisan Street store had tested positive for the coronavirus. (That worker tells WW he's recovering but wishes his bosses had informed the public earlier.)
Since then, he and his fellow cashier and deli workers received new protections after their union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, pressed for guaranteed paid sick leave if they test positive for the coronavirus or need to be quarantined.
Fred Meyer's Oregon warehouse workers, represented by a different union, have been granted no such protections. In fact, as the pandemic made its way into the state, Fred Meyer's warehouse employees saw both their hours and quotas increased to keep up with increasing demand.
In early March, Fred Meyer told its warehouse employees they may not request vacation time through the end of the month, according to a memo posted at the Clackamas warehouse headquarters. Many employees have been scheduled to work for weeks on end without days off.
"I am concerned about the hours that they're working, and obviously your system becomes weaker if you're fatigued," says Gene Blackburn, the warehouse workers' union representative. "This is pretty unprecedented. [The stores] are definitely profiting and have a big business going. The employees see it as a need to service the community. These guys are rolling up their sleeves."
An algorithm determines the proper time frame in which to complete each order—say, 45 minutes. "You check your performance, and you realize you lost a little bit of time, so you try to make it up on your last assignment and it wears you out even more, and you lose even more time," Olmos says. "That's what takes a toll on you, is trying to maintain your quota for the day."
That also creates health risks.
Workers tell WW that to meet the increasing demands of Fred Meyer's stores, the warehouse is assigning more employees than usual to come in at once—from about 45 employees under normal circumstances to 60 or 70 now—making it nearly impossible for workers to maintain at least 6 feet of space between each other despite directives from state and federal officials.
Fred Meyer said in an email statement on March 24 that it has enhanced daily sanitation practices in its stores and enacted paid time off for associates diagnosed with COVID-19. The company did not specify if that paid medical leave would apply to warehouse workers.
Fred Meyer said employees may "volunteer" to work for more than seven days in a row, but the company does not force employees to work that frequently. The company also said it complies with all federal and state labor laws, that it encourages social distancing for all workers and that warehouse employees are eligible for sick leave.
"We are so proud of our associates and the great work that they are doing," Fred Meyer told WW. "They are clearly working with a sense of purpose and responsibility."
The company also announced $300 bonuses for many employees, including warehouse workers, effective April 1, in addition to overtime pay.
During his seven years at the warehouse before the pandemic hit, Sieckmann used to enjoy socializing with friends after work and barbecuing in the warmer months. Now, he says, after a 12-hour shift, he arrives home around 7 p.m.: "I eat, shower and go to bed."
Then he wakes up at 6 the next morning and does it all over again. He says he's had two days off since Feb. 20, and some of his co-workers have been working for 20 days straight without a break.
"The hardest part is not knowing there is an end in sight. Not knowing when we're going to get a day off. I can do the job. It would just be nice not to do it every single day," says Sieckmann. "I'm really hoping there's an end to this. It would be nice to have a smidgen of a life other than picking cases."
Juan Olmos says the situation is out of his bosses' control.
"It just feels eerie. Stuff comes in, and as soon as it comes in, it's out the door: soups, pasta, pasta sauce, water, canned food. A lot of cleaning supplies. Bleach. It's everything," says Olmos. "By the end of the day, the warehouse is empty. Nobody's ever seen it like that before."