Publix employees are on the coronavirus frontlines, here’s what they’re saying

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In the midst of a historic health crisis, Publix had an all-time record sales day last week, according to one Tampa Bay employee who wished to remain anonymous. This week, meager raises were announced for associates at Publix locations across the country, overtime was opened up, and the Lakeland-based grocer giant now says it's looking to hire thousands more by the end of the month.

But despite a six-foot social distancing recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's almost impossible for grocery store employees to follow these guidelines in the midst of overpacked stores and a rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic. The it happened.  To the surprise of almost no one, the first Publix associate tested positive for COVID-19 on March 23. In a statement, the company said it has increased cleaning measures, and implemented a "heightened disinfection response." They did not close down the store, or say if or when the employee will be able to come back to work.

Currently, only full-time employees get paid sick leave at Publix. A recent article in the New York Times found that there's an estimated 89,000 Publix employees currently without paid sick leave. According to a Publix communication director Maria Brous, employees who exhibit cold symptoms must stay at home for at least 72 hours, but would not comment on if the company plans to offer expanded paid sick leave in the coming weeks for part-time associates.

On top of that, employees (like cashiers) say they have been sent home for wearing face masks because they may scare away customers. Another employee, who also wished to remain anonymous, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that he was personally told by a manager not to wear gloves on the floor. Some people are scared, said the employee, adding that many associates (of all ages) have since quit over coronavirus concerns but the company is just filling the schedule with new hires.

When asked if there was an official company policy on not wearing gloves or masks, Brous said the Publix follows the the FDA and CDC guidance regarding face masks and gloves. "Both are considered personal protective equipment (PPE)," said Brous. "They are in very high demand, especially for those working in the health care industry.  The FDA and CDC do not recommend facemasks for those working in the food industry.  If one is sick, then he/she should stay home. Regarding gloves, these need to be used in areas based on food handling positions or where PPE is required."

Meanwhile, Publix employees say they've been given $50 gift cards for their work on the front lines.

As Florida's coronavirus cases mount, and grocery store employees continue to increasingly put themselves at risk, it's only a matter of time before many get sick and can't pay their bills, or worse.

To say Publix associates are frustrated with the current scenario is an understatement. Creative Loafing Tampa Bay spoke with multiple employees who've expressed genuine concern. Customers are typically shielded from this type of in-company venting, but this overt exasperation has also begun to bubble up in online communities like Reddit's r/publix, a forum mostly populated by current and former employees.

Besides an onslaught of humorous and often extremely dark memes about customers asking for extra toilet paper and workers having no choice but to show up and clock-in during the apocalypse, employees are also posting about very sincere concerns and risks. "Workers are sick and coughing.. but they are still working though. A few of us wanted to put on masks. One person did, and was hunted down immediately by management," said one user. "

"Publix is setting themselves up for the next big employee class action lawsuit," said another user. "Its all about managed risk...they can afford to pay the settlement.... until people die."

As you can see above, we've collected a number of posts from the Publix subreddit. Some are funny and some are hopeful, but all of them give us a brutal and dark glimpse at the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

- Colin Wolf

*This post has been updated with further comments from Publix 

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