Vaccination police? New mask guidance could put grocery workers at risk, labor advocates warn

Conflicting positions from state and local authorities put retailers and their employees “in incredibly difficult situations” said one retail expert.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has weighed in, but your local supermarket might have other ideas when it comes to mask mandates. The beleaguered retail sector found itself thrust onto the front lines of the politicized fight over mask-wearing with the agency’s new guidance issued Thursday.

Phil Lempert, founder of, predicted that grocery stores won’t do away with mask requirements, at least for workers. “Retailers are going to mandate or bribe with bonuses or added pay that employees continue to wear masks,” he said.

Associations and unions representing workers pushed back on the CDC’s assertion that fully vaccinated people can dispense with wearing masks, raising alarms that employees could be at risk in the absence of a way to verify the vaccination status of shoppers.

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United Food and Commercial Workers International, a union representing grocery store workers, issued a statement critical of the new guidance, saying it was “confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.”

The union expressed concern about the potential hostility workers could face. “Workers are still forced to play mask police,” the statement said. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

“Today’s CDC announcement on masks creates ambiguity for retailers because it fails to fully align with state and local orders,” Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations and innovation for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said in a statement. “These conflicting positions put retailers and their employees in incredibly difficult situations.”

Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, also noted that state-level mask mandates still remain in place, even as he struck a more optimistic tone, saying in a statement that the new guidance “will help to open the economy and get more people back to work.”

The announcement has the potential to be a PR minefield for stores, especially national chains like big-box and department stores, said Nick Shields, a senior analyst covering the retail sector at Third Bridge investment firm.

“They’re very cautious about PR over the next couple of months,” he said. Stores will have to walk a tightrope between making sure employees feel safe while accommodating the varying and potentially clashing preferences of shoppers, he added.

One solution for large chains could be the integration of a kind of vaccine passport into their loyalty programs.

Shields predicted that shifting guidelines on masking could prompt some customer-facing employees who have not yet been vaccinated to do so, and added that masking might be a habit that some prefer to keep. “It’s likely that you’ll see employees be much more willing to keep their masks on for longer, just given the sheer number of people they’re exposed to on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Perhaps wary of having workers caught in the middle, many big retail chains said they had no plans to waive in-store mask mandates immediately. Drugstore giant CVS said it was “evaluating our in-store mask policy” but made no further commitment.

“Target will continue to require all of our coronavirus safety measures in all stores, including masks and social distancing, while we review updated guidance from the CDC and re-evaluate the guidance we offer our team and guests,” company spokesman Brian Harper-Tibaldo said via email.

Sheila Regehr, spokeswoman for Kroger Co., said the company still requires employees and customers to wear masks, adding that the company is incentivizing workers to get the Covid-19 vaccine by offering a $100 one-time bonus. “We are reviewing current safety practices, the CDC’s latest guidance and soliciting feedback from associates to guide the next phase of our policy,” she said.

Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the Publix chain of supermarkets, said the company is “awaiting additional guidance before implementing potential changes.”

Lempert said one solution for large chains could be the integration of a kind of vaccine passport into their loyalty programs. “A technology play could be that you scan your vaccination card into your supermarket app, and you just scan a QR code as you walk in the store for verification,” he said.


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