Masks, vaccinations and sanitization fogging machines had never been concerns for Andrea Karns, vice president of marketing and sales at Karns Quality Foods. Yet 2020 ushered in its own worries and rules.
“For a grocery retailer, these are conversations and thoughts that we never knew we would be in a position to have,” Karns said.
When COVID-19 hit the scene nearly a year ago, the food retail industry quickly adjusted procedures for customer and employee safety. Deemed essential services, grocery stores remained opened, but faced an unknown battle against a new disease. Workers who have faithfully left their homes to keep supplies and services available to their communities now wait to receive the vaccine.
“We have been able to operate, and I recognize how fortunate we are to have been in that position,” Karns said. “At the same time, the drawback is the same. We have been operating and working to traverse the pandemic at the same time as society. As a company, we had to make decisions for the health and safety of our shoppers as well as our team members during unknown times.”
As the medical community and government worked to develop guidelines and regulations in response to the pandemic, Karns said they were doing the same and looking to other countries or states for additional guidance. Staying proactive allowed Karns to implement temperature testing before it was a state mandate and to quickly order and operate sanitization fogging machines in its stores. Most recently, all Karns locations completed upgrades to their air handling filtration systems, providing additional protection to team members, shoppers and vendors. Even though some practices have been relaxed, Karns said their nine locations continue to monitor customer traffic to ensure it remains appropriate for the size of the store.
“We layered onto the mandates to make sure we were taking every step possible to keep our team members, our shoppers and our vendor partners safe and to keep everyone healthy.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Karns said they have maintained staffing. The roles have changed over time, though, to accommodate new rules, for example shifting employees out of salad or hot bar positions to maintenance or cleaning. “We didn’t cut our labor hours, we’ve just shifted those hours into different tasks and duties,” Karns said.
With its quick response to safety and sanitation, Karns Quality Foods, like other grocery stores across the nation, found itself receiving praise for the dedication of its hard-working team. While so many industries went remote this past year, those working in grocery retail continued to leave their homes to provide essential services. Karns said early support for essential workers was welcome, but that seems to have fallen to the wayside in recent months.
Karns believes the state has done its best to recognize and support grocery workers to this point, but the vaccination process has left her “hugely disappointed.”
“Early in the pandemic, essential workers, grocery workers, were being applauded and praised, and there were demands for recognition to be in place,” she said. “The vaccination situation of being in 1B, then being in 1B while other people were expedited into 1A, for a lot of my team members, has been a deflating moment.”
Many of the concerns and questions Karns hears from employees revolve around the availability of vaccines and mask wearing. Many of the answers remain unknown at this point. Karns said her team often asks what vaccination will look like for them, when they can expect to receive a vaccine and if they can anticipate the establishment of a clinic for workers.
For employees working outside of the home, it is extra challenging to track and schedule vaccination appointments. “That’s not a luxury a lot of our team members have, to be able to have that freedom, that accessibility to the internet and that time,” she said “We are all working, we’re all working outside of our homes in the stores where we can’t just be on our phone refreshing or on a desktop to get these highly coveted appointments.”
Karns Quality Foods does not have pharmacies in its stores. Karns said they are working to connect with local or national chain pharmacies to establish some type of program or clinic for employees. They have shared the estimated number of employees eligible to receive vaccines with several pharmacies, but at this time, pharmacies don’t have enough information about their vaccine supplies to offer such a program.
When vaccines are available, Karns said the company has established an incentive program to make it easier for team members to take the time needed for vaccination. Employees will receive a $50 payment in total for getting their vaccination, and managers are encouraged to provide flexible scheduling when possible. Karns hopes that this gesture provides a thank you to employees going out of their way to get vaccinated.
“Communities have to come together to make sure folks are able to get it when you have those appointments,” she said.
In the meantime, Karns looks toward the future with cautious optimism. Even though she foresees the need to continue wearing masks through this year, and essential worker vaccination remains a challenge, she has noticed cooperation from customers as mask mandates and other regulations continue.
“The compliance from our shoppers has greatly increased over the last few months. People have come to embrace or surrender—maybe a little bit of both—the best practices of shopping with only one person per family and wearing a mask properly. I’m only hoping that continues to increase.”