Supermarket employees have served as a lifeline for many during the coronavirus pandemic that's killed more than 500,000 Americans thus far.
They have restocked shelves after runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, sterilized grocery carts and done deep cleans after closing time. They've handled long lines in the checkout lanes and prepared online orders for home delivery.
Now the industry is showing its gratitude to the essential workers who kept it going during COVID-19.
Grocery stores across the country, including Northwest Indiana's Strack & Van Til chain, celebrated Supermarket Employee Day Feb. 22. FMI—The Food Industry Association invented the holiday to honor the six million supermarket employees nationwide who have kept shelves stocked with essential supplies during the pandemic.
“Supermarket employees have earned our gratitude, which is why we are creating an annual holiday to celebrate them,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI’s president and CEO. “The fact is that they always have been front-line heroes during periods of crisis. In the face of natural disasters, and now especially during a global pandemic, these folks keep communities going.”
Highland-based Strack & Van Til gave the 3,000 employees at its 20 stores treats throughout the day, a gift card for lunch and bonuses of up to $500 based on years of service. Messages of "thank you" were displayed on bulletin boards around the 19 Strack & Van Til locations and the Town and Country store in Valparaiso.
"The idea was to recognize the workers on the front lines for all their dedication and loyalty," CEO Jeff Strack said. "During some uncertain times, they have provided essential services so people can survive. They've been taking care of the public during the pandemic."
Employees weren't able to get together for a celebration because of COVID-19, so Strack & Van Til made sure to feed them bakery and deli items throughout the day.
"We did a host of things to say thank you," Strack said. "It's been stressful for employees, especially early on where you didn't know if you could get the virus just from touching products. We in the grocery industry took many safety precautions, including Plexiglas at the checkout aisles. We're doing everything we can to help make employees' safety number one. It wasn't like a snowstorm or a holiday where you have a playbook."
While viral videos have depicted shoppers screaming at grocery store workers across the country when being asked to follow mask mandates, Strack & Van Tik's customers generally haven't been abusive, Strack said.
"We understand people's opinions vary widely but the majority understand it's doing the right thing to help protect employees and fellow customers," he said. "While there has been a little bit of stress, our customers have been pretty understanding."
Maintaining staffing levels has been a challenge during the pandemic, as it has for many in the retail sector, but Strack and Van Til employees tend to be loyal, Strack said.
"Once we get them in the door, we normally have long relationships," he said. "Many employees have been here 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. That's a testament to the culture Ernie Strack and Nick Van Til built. It starts with our founding fathers and the culture they created to make employees feel respected and appreciated, where our people do the right things and work hard."
Employees sent Strack emails and text messages throughout the day thanking him for the recognition, saying all the fanfare made them feel special.
"I'm hopeful the gratitude shown to our workers will continue and they won't be taken for granted," he said. "They show up day in and day out to help feed families. Our industry works hard to keep your families fed. We've been ingrained in the community for more than 60 years, and our employees live and work in neighborhoods across Northwest Indiana."
Supermarket Employee Day was widely celebrated among the 40,000 stores that sell food and other groceries in the United, Sarasin said. It's expected to become an annual event, celebrated every Feb. 22.
"When FMI proclaimed this new holiday to recognize the six million employees that comprise our nation’s food industry, nobody ever could have imagined how much this celebration would be embraced,” Sarasin said. “In this short window of time, supermarkets and food manufacturers are coordinating a broad spectrum of activities to honor our industry’s front-line heroes on this first-ever Supermarket Employee Day.”