From the Coronavirus Frontlines: Wheatsville Co-op

Two managers talk life as an essential grocery store employee

Grocery stores have always been an essential part of modern living, but during a pandemic, it’s even more apparent how extremely important they are. Every day, employees like the folks at Wheatsville Co-op are putting their own health at risk to allow Austinites access to fresh food and household necessities. In our book, that means they’re heroes.

Photo by John Anderson

Austin’s 44-year-old co-op is constantly adapting to changes caused by COVID-19 and they’ve implemented new protocols to ensure the safety of team members and shoppers. In addition to accommodating seniors and high-risk shoppers every Tuesday and Thursday from 9-10am, they’re limiting the number of shoppers inside the stores, staggering registers, and practicing the Six Feet rule between team members and shoppers – in fact, there are store announcements every half hour to remind everyone. They’re no longer allowing outside packaging (grocery bags, containers for food and beverages, etc.) and every hour on the hour they go through a storewide sanitation.

The best part? Everybody’s favorite $5 dinner is back and available via Grab and Go on Thursdays.

Additionally, on March 27, the co-op announced to its employees that a $2 “Gratitude Pay” would be implemented for all staff (except senior management): “This increase will be retroactively paid back to Monday, March 16, the first day the cooperative began operating with reduced hours. Employees at both locations of Wheatsville Food Co-op continue to work tirelessly to ensure its communities, owners and neighbors have the supplies needed during COVID-19.”

“Wheatsville’s primary mission has always been to serve this community to the best of our ability, but the stakes in doing so have never been higher or clearer. We need to help keep Austin fed so that we can all get through this crisis together.” – Bill Bickford, Wheatsville’s HR Manager

To get a glimpse of how the Wheatsville crew is faring during the pandemic, we reached out to two managers, Bill Bickford (HR Manager) and Dana Tomlin (Fresh Manager), both members of the Interim General Management Team.

Austin Chronicle: How have day-to-day job duties shifted to meet the great pandemic needs? What is it like to be in your position?

Bill Bickford: “Job duties for many staff have changed dramatically. Probably the most visible example is the lack of deli counter service at this time, which has meant that those staff have been reassigned to stocking, shopping for curbside pickup (Instacart), managing customer entry to ensure adequate social distancing, or cross training to run a register. And these changes have had to happen very quickly, which is challenging for everyone involved.”

“In my own position, I’m currently having to monitor health symptoms in staff in a way that would have probably felt invasive or even rude in the past, but it’s what we need to do during this extraordinary time to protect everyone involved. I’ve also spent significant time working to understand the new Emergency Sick Leave regulations and creating procedures to implement it for our staff. But in the first weeks of this crisis, the ONLY concern we could focus on was adjusting operations and creating protocols to ensure safety. Any other non-critical concerns had to be tabled until those things were in place.”

AC: What makes WV and the co-op model particularly important right now?

Dana Tomlin: “We are a community and when we come together we are stronger. Co-ops are as LOCAL as you can get. By supporting the co-op, you are supporting hundreds of local producers and farmers. That money is staying in our community and supporting each other. Being a co-op means that we are here for our staff and our community. That means making decisions like creating a successful Grab-n-Go/$5 Dinner program is really important to us – we need to be able to provide an affordable, healthy meal for people while also doing that in a safe manner.”

Photo by John Anderson

BB: “I would add that our staff are a big part of that community. And at a time when so many Austin businesses have been forced to close their doors and huge portions of our community have been laid off or furloughed, an important part of serving this community is protecting staff jobs. Staying operational and getting food to people who need it is how we can best do that.”

AC: What has the response from members & other shoppers been? Are you seeing big rushes on government pay schedules, or (aside from toilet paper) other trends in purchases? More pantry staples or produce, etc.?

DT: “We are seeing an increase in the purchase of baking supplies. I cook at home a lot so I am really excited to see people using this time at home to hone their cooking skills. When we get to the other side, I hope there are a lot of people that are more comfortable in their kitchens cooking and baking. Customers have also been very happy with our new protocols. We have people that thank us every day for what we are doing. They really appreciate the co-op and our staff. They appreciate the calm feeling in the store. We have announcements throughout the day reminding people of our protocols and we also remind people as they walk in our doors.”

AC: Please tell us about the gratitude pay and other WV initiatives for staff.

BB: “Our staff who are coming to work each day to help keep Austin fed during this crisis do so out of a desire to help our community. The additional gratitude pay was really the least we could do to recognize their immense contributions during this time. We do not have the resources of our multibillion-dollar competitors, but it was clear this was the right thing to do.

“We have also allowed staff who – for whatever reason, and without judgment – feel they cannot be at work during this time to take a Leave of Absence and retain their jobs. We felt this was an important option to have available for our staff who may be immunocompromised or have other risk factors that might make the virus a greater threat for them or their families. For those on leave, we have covered the first month of employer-portion insurance premiums for these staff, despite that not normally being the case on a personal leave.

“And finally, we have allowed staff who need to be out with any kind of illness to advance their paid time off into the negative. We are carefully monitoring temperatures and other symptoms in staff, and our top priority is to be safe and extra cautious. We didn’t want pay to be the thing encouraging staff to come to work when they shouldn’t, so that was why this was offered. And even with the new Paid Sick Leave option created by the Families First and Coronavirus Response Act, we are still keeping the PTO Advance option available with the idea that people may well need to be out more than once during this crisis.”

AC: When you’re not at work serving the community, what are some local quarantine-friendly downtime activities? Favorite streaming things, recipes?

DT: “Honestly, working in the grocery business means we don’t have a lot of downtime but the time I do have is spent cross-stitching and binge-watching Netflix.”

BB: “In the rare moments I’ve had available, I’ve been building a chicken coop and run for my backyard. It keeps me mentally busy, physically active, and perhaps most importantly, at home.”

AC: Why, in your words, is Austin safer when we stay home?

DT: “There is a lot of concern about the virus being on packages and surfaces and while that is true ... the best way you can control the spread of this is to STAY HOME. Minimize your contact with other people and stay 6 feet away.”

AC: Anything else you would like our readers to know? Anything we can do to help you?

DT: “Follow[ing] social distancing when you shop is critical. Please respect our house rules, come in with a list, send only one person in to the store, what we have on the shelf is what we have – there is no back stock, be nice to each other and be nice to us.”

BB: “One of the International Cooperative Principles that define all co-ops is Concern for Community. Never has the importance of that principle been clearer to me than these past few weeks. Wheatsville’s primary mission has always been to serve this community to the best of our ability, but the stakes in doing so have never been higher or clearer. We need to help keep Austin fed so that we can all get through this crisis together.”

For both Wheatsville locations (3101 Guadalupe; 4001 S. Lamar), the updated hours are Mon.-Sun., 10am-9pm; Tue. and Thu. for Seniors and High-Risk Shoppers, 9-10am. For up-to-date info, visit www.wheatsville.coop.

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