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Bay Area Grocery Stores Grapple With Staffing Shortages and Stocking Snarls

Officials say there’s plenty of food — companies just need people there to deliver and sell it

Gregory Meeks
The supply chain will hold of shoppers only buy what they need, officials say
Getty Images

It’s been over a week since Bay Area shoppers started to flood local grocery stores, panic buying staples as a reaction to the region’s shelter-in-place order, a mandate made to help reduce the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19). The crowds haven’t let up since, retailers say, though many stores are instituting measures to ensure social distancing guidelines can be followed. Here’s what’s happening in the local grocery store scene these days.

First: It’s unlikely that the U.S. will run out of food, so people should chill out

Wired reports that food supply experts like Fred Boehler, the president and CEO of food truck and warehouse company Americold Logistics, say, “We’re not going to run out of food, I promise, I promise, I promise.” U.S. farmers have actually produced a surplus in recent months, as an anticipated thaw in the ongoing trade war with China led many to believe that the country would re-start buying U.S.-grown goods.

One of the reasons supplies might feel thin, the Wall Street Journal reports, is that over the past 20 years, food sellers that once stored months’ worth on inventory transitioned to only keeping four to six weeks’ worth of food and supplies in stock. It was a move intended to increase profit margins by cutting down on warehouse needs (and therefore rent, utilities, and labor). “This finely balanced system works well while goods are flowing steadily,” the WSJ reports. “A black swan event like the coronavirus can blow it to pieces.” As a result, companies like General Mills are now expediting production and delivery, sending goods straight from factories to area stores.

Of course, this only works if consumers buy only what they need. The San Jose Mercury News reports that current Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidance recommends that local residents stockpile a week’s worth of groceries, tops. “Freight flows are not disrupted,” the agency says, “but stores need time to restock.”

Grocery stores and delivery companies are facing staff shortfalls

Companies like Bay Area-based Safeway and SF-based Instacart were not staffed to deal with this crisis, so now they’re struggling to hire enough people to deal with the long lines and backlog of online orders. Instacart is hiring 300,000 workers, ABC 7 reports, though “hiring” and “openings” might be a misnomer: Prior to the crisis, the company has vigorously argued that the people who wear its uniforms, carry its bags, and serve its customers should not be classified as “employees” in California or beyond.

There’s an argument to be made that the balance of power might shift between workers and managers at companies like Instacart, an argument that might have played a part in the news, reported by the SF Examiner late Monday, that after over a year of contentious negotiations Safeway reached a temporary agreement with its 30,000 workers in Northern California. As part of the agreement, workers will receive an additional $2-per-hour “appreciation” wage increase, a raise that will last for two weeks but that union United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 will push to extend.

So far, store workers appear to remain healthy

Though headlines blared that a worker at a San Jose grocery store has died of the disease, reading the full report paints a different picture: According to NBC Bay Area, an employee of the FoodMaxx grocery store 1539 Parkmoor Avenue died after a positive COVID-19 test, but officials say that it’s believed that the victim “contracted the virus and fell ill while away on vacation,” and has not been inside the store since March 6. Out an abundance of caution, the Merc reports the store was shuttered, but officials say that it is cleared to reopen “when the company is ready to do so.”

Meanwhile, a Raley’s in the East Bay took shoppers on a roller coaster ride Monday, first saying that an employee had a positive test, then that the employee hadn’t contracted the virus after all. According to the East Bay Times, the Raley’s located on the 3600 block of Lone Tree Way in Antioch reported the illness Sunday night, and the store was immediately shuttered. After a “professional sanitizing” and “an investigation into the alleged case,” the company said that it was “retracting” the positive test announcement, and that the store would reopen at 6 a.m. Tuesday.