My great-aunt works at a grocery store in a populous suburb of Philadelphia. She’s worked there for about two years, following a stint of part-time jobs, including one at a temp agency working in factories. Normally she works behind the deli counter with a team and helps customers on the floor; now she mostly works alone behind the counter because there’s not enough space for multiple people to social distance back there. She pre-slices the most popular cold cuts to place out in front of the counter, so people don’t have to ask for them.
My great-aunt’s workplace hasn’t provided her with any protective gear, even though grocery workers are, as Vogue decreed, “the new first responders” under COVID-19. She had to purchase masks for herself off Groupon for $30, no small expense on her wages. She was excited about her recent COVID-19-induced raise from $11 an hour to $13 an hour, even though the store cut her hours so ultimately she’s making about the same amount.
“Before I guess I didn’t take this all serious,” my aunt says. “But I am anxious now, because people just keep coming in here. They’re not listening to the stay at home order. People come in there, and they’re not wearing masks.”
My great-aunt has a felony record, so she’s limited in the work she’s able to get. She can’t quit her job, because she went through so much to get this one: working at the temp agency and being driven across state lines to work in factories, getting rides to local hotels to beg for housekeeping work, struggling to make enough to get out of her recovery housing. “I just couldn’t get a job,” she recalls.
Nearly three-fourths of people released from prison remain unemployed a year after their release, and a criminal record can halve the chances of a job callback or offer; those chances are worse for Black applicants than white applicants. Gender complicates it further: Because women often work in fields that require background checks, like retail and caregiving, they may have an even harder time finding employment. In many states, including Pennsylvania, state law bars people with criminal records from caregiving jobs.
Many parole deals include an offer of employment as a requirement of release, increasing the urgency of the job search. It took my great-aunt, who is white, a year to get her part-time job at the grocery store; she’s worked there ever since.
Despite the risks, her position at the grocery store is a blessing. Other re-entry-friendly fields like retail have faced massive layoffs — more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since late March, with Pennsylvania hit particularly hard — leaving more people with records looking for jobs. Grocery stores, on the other hand, are desperate for employees. Since they are considered essential, grocery stores are among the few establishments open, making them the main place for people to purchase household goods.
As a result, grocery stores may be where formerly incarcerated people turn first for work, despite the dangers. My great-aunt says her friend’s son was released from a Philly prison a few weeks ago with no warning — presumably due to COVID-19 concerns, but they’re not sure — and showed up on her friend’s doorstep. After a few days, they were able to get him into a halfway house a few towns away. He got a job at a local grocery store a week later.
People with a history of incarceration tend to be pushed into dangerous jobs, like construction, maintenance, and factory lines, with wages below the poverty line. These are often the jobs that others see as menial work; right now, these are the jobs that are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, because they don’t allow for social distancing and provide essential services to protect us all.
After all, you need to get your groceries somewhere. And when you get them, my great-aunt will be there, in the deli section, slicing your cold cuts, at great risk to her health. “I’m a little nervous about going, but I don’t have a choice,” she admits. “I need my paycheck. I’m grateful I still have a job, I look at how many people are unemployed and I’m just grateful I have a job.”