March 20 (Reuters) - For Philip, a grocery store clerk, it's not a matter of if he gets coronavirus, but when.
He is among millions of supermarket employees who have been classified as critical U.S. workers at "essential businesses" that will stay open to prevent disruption in food supply.
While other workers are being told to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, these employees are being asked to put themselves in constant contact with the public.
Coronavirus cases are beginning to appear among them. Whole Foods Market on Thursday reported a positive case in a New York City worker.
California late on Thursday issued an unprecedented statewide "stay at home order" directing the state's 40 million residents to hunker down in their homes for the foreseeable future.
Grocery stores, along with pharmacies, banks and gas stations, will remain open under the order.
Working low-paying jobs, these unlikely heroes in the produce section and behind the meat counter are both terrified and gratified to be on the frontlines of the U.S. coronavirus fight. Some employers have raised wages and granted paid sick leave, but there is pressure on them to do more.
“I didn’t sign up to be in a position where I’m constantly exposed to a deadly virus, but I understand too that if grocery stores close then there are way bigger problems," said Philip, who works in the produce section of a Whole Foods store in a southern U.S. state.
Philip asked that his last name and location not be used.
“I’d just like to get the virus now, and get it out of the way, so I can come back to work," said Philip, who is in his 30s. "Everyone’s terrified there, deep down, apart from the few who think it’s not a big deal yet."
Some older or vulnerable grocery store workers are leaving jobs, fearful of the risks of being infected, according to supermarket owners and workers Reuters spoke to in four U.S. states. Absentee rates are rising as employees call in sick, these people said.
Kings Food Markets, with stores in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, was among chains posting hiring notices to support existing workers and scoop up employees laid off from shuttered restaurants and bars.
To retain staff and meet spiraling demand, Whole Foods' owner Amazon this week raised pay by $2 dollars an hour, granted two weeks paid sick leave if employees tested positive for COVID-19, and said it would hire an extra 100,000 staff.
Companies face pressure to do more. Kroger Co, the largest U.S. supermarket chain by revenues, faces a MoveOn petition with around 72,000 signatures calling on it to grant paid sick leave to any employee, not just those that test positive or are quarantined, to stop sick associates coming to stores and infecting colleagues and customers.
For now, most grocery workers are reporting to work.
Those like Niko G. in North Carolina say they feel a sense of duty.
For two days the 23-year-old deli assistant got really scared and was ready to quit. Then he sat down with his dad, who told him to calm down, and that he was doing "a public service."
“I’ve had a couple of people make it very clear when they come in that they’re very thankful," said Niko, who asked that his full last name, location and employer not be used. "I’m going to keep working, I'm going to try to keep helping people with what I’m doing."
Veteran workers are also staying on the job. At a store in northern New Mexico, a grandfather worked in the produce section while his grandson rounded up carts outside.
"I realize people need to eat, but what about our exposure?" asked the grandfather, who asked not to be named, pointing out that when he works the checkout there was maybe two feet between him and customers. "Do I feel safe? Not really, it's scary." (Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, additional reporting by Ed Tobin in Montclair, New Jersey; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sonya Hepinstall)