Meet the Wisconsin grocery warehouse workers who've shipped 162 million pounds of food during coronavirus panic-buying
Pandemic buying has workers at Roundy's busy keeping grocery stores stocked to meet customers demand. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
OCONOMOWOC - Barnard Tillman can’t remember the last time he had a day off.
Kenneth Green thinks he might have had one a couple weeks ago, but he isn’t sure.
The days tend to run together when you’re working largely unseen on the front lines of a pandemic.
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Tillman and Green, together with hundreds of their co-workers at the Roundy’s Supermarkets distribution center in Oconomowoc, have been working days on end to keep the company's grocery stores in Wisconsin and northern Illinois stocked during panic buying brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What they have achieved is nothing short of astonishing: They have shipped 162 million pounds of food in the past four weeks. That's a 30% increase over normal.
The increase happened almost overnight.
"The amount of food we were shipping out just kept growing," said Richard Bridwell, senior supply chain manager at the facility. "I’ve been in logistics 25 years and this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this."
The center has been sending about 225 tractor-trailer loads of food to stores every day since stay-at-home and business closure orders have taken effect.
With people stuck at home and restaurants all but shut down, grocery sales have skyrocketed.
The rate at which stores need to restock seems to have plateaued in recent days, but it remains extremely high.
For shoppers, that means items that might not have been available are slowly returning to store shelves.
"The stores have filled in a lot of holes," Bridwell said. "There are still some gaps in the supply chain on certain items but they are starting to come back online."
The gaps will likely be seen in canned soups, canned vegetables and frozen vegetables. "We’ve seen a lot of hoarding with those items," Bridwell said.
Roundy's is a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Kroger. It operates 106 Pick ‘n Save and Metro Market stores in Wisconsin and about 40 Mariano’s grocery stores in northern Illinois.
The efforts of supply chain workers — and every other front line worker at the company — haven't gone unnoticed. Kroger is giving bonuses ($300 for full time and $150 for part time) to everyone on the payroll on or before March 1 and has temporarily boosted wages by $2 for hours worked from March 29 to April 18.
Bananas and bandannas
Besides the much ballyhooed demand for toilet paper and bottled water, stores have been replenishing tons of canned soup, canned vegetables (a shipment bound for a store in Wisconsin on Wednesday was loaded with sauerkraut), frozen vegetables, meat, eggs and bananas, Bridwell said.
It's folks like Tillman and Green who help fill the tractor-trailers that deliver the goods to the stores.
"I work seven days in a row all the time," Tillman said. “We have to get the food out to the stores.
"A lot of people here recognize (that a pandemic) is going on," he added. "We recognize that people do have to eat. We try to get (as much) every day to the stores as we can."
Tillman has worked in distribution for the company for 29 years. He's responsible for training new workers at the facility.
Like Bridwell and others in the industry, he's never seen anything like the past few weeks.
There's a sense among the warehouse workers that they have had the role of public servant thrust upon them.
"We have people volunteer to come in on their off days," Bridwell said. "You have some people who are working six, seven days a week up to 16 hours a day to service the community.
"And it’s all because they want to do that," he added. "We haven’t forced anybody to work any extra or any off days or anything like that. They just volunteer on their own."
Count Green among them.
"I’ve been working every day," Green said. "It doesn’t bother me.
"I’m not trying to be a hero, but if we can help people and I can help … I’m OK with that," he added. "I feel honored."
Green has worked in distribution at Roundy's for 21 years.
Some workers at the site have volunteered to work in the freezer section where the temperature is below zero. To work there, you have to dress as if you were working outside in January.
That part of the warehouse is usually not staffed on Sundays. But demand has been so great that three Sundays in a row, people were needed to fill orders. On those days, "We’ve been able to have 30 to 40 people come in" on their days off and work in the freezer section, Bridwell said.
Some of the fastest moving items have been eggs and bananas.
"We're selling a lot of eggs," Bridwell said. "We’re receiving about six to seven truckloads every day of eggs."
Then there are bananas. Already the top-selling item at most grocery stores, the rate at which bananas have been selling since the pandemic has been staggering.
"Today we are shipping out 2,400 cases to stores," said Steve Hanscher, a quality control inspector at the facility. The bananas come in 40-pound boxes. That's 96,000 pounds of bananas.
That's down slightly from where it had been.
"Two weeks ago we were doubling our orders to stores," Hanscher said. "Never in my life have I seen that many bananas go out of this building."
He's been working in distribution for the company for 27 years.
Like so many other people who have been deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, those at the facility are working even as the virus continues to spread.
"We try to stay healthy. That’s the bottom line," Green said.
Many in the facility wear bandannas across their noses and mouths. Cleaning crews are visible everywhere.
Tillman says he self-isolates when he's not at work.
"When I get off, I go home and stay home until the next morning when it’s time to go to work," Tillman said.
Small city under one roof
The distribution facility is roughly the size of 30 football fields. It has at least four climate zones, ranging from well below zero to warm and humid. (Bananas love it warm and humid.)
Across the facility, forklifts move about on aisles that resemble streets between towering racks with shelves that contain every grocery item imaginable.
The racks resemble open-air buildings whose various levels are stacked to the ceiling with canned goods, snacks, pancake mix, eggs, meat, frozen pizza, onions, oranges and apples, flour, bottled water, dog food — anything you would find in a grocery store.
There is one set of racks that is filled floor-to-ceiling with ice cream.
The products come in from suppliers, are scanned into a computerized inventory system and placed on the racks until order pickers using forklifts equipped with computers gather a store's order and deliver it to an assembly area where it is readied for shipment and loaded onto semitrailers.
As far as shipping, the facility is served by a team of 110 truck drivers operating 100 tractors and 350 trailers — just for stores in Wisconsin.
More workers needed
All told, the Roundy's complex employs close to 1,000 people.
Bridwell and the folks who lead the operation carefully watch workers for signs of exhaustion.
"For me, I’m mentally exhausted," Bridwell said. "But for a lot of the people who work here, they are physically exhausted with the amount of work that they are doing."
Typically, the week before Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year in the grocery business, said Jim Hyland, Roundy's vice president of communications and public affairs.
"For the Thanksgiving holiday you get a spike where things are 15 or 20 percent above a normal day," Bridwell said. "We’ve seen spikes here at our distribution center where case counts are 70 percent above a normal day.
"It’s one thing to do those case counts in a short amount of time for a week" during Thanksgiving or Easter, Bridwell said. "But when you stretch it out four weeks going on five weeks now, people start to wear down a little bit and that’s the concern."
The facility needs more workers.
"This warehouse is big enough to service the current demand," Bridwell said. "We just need more labor."
He also says the company is looking to put people in positions permanently — these are not jobs that will be gone once the pandemic subsides.
"We are looking to keep those people we bring on board. What we’re looking for is not seasonal type labor or spike or surge labor or anything like that," Bridwell said. "It’s labor that we are looking to hire and keep on full time."
The jobs are predominantly union represented positions and wages start around $19 an hour. The average wage is about $25 an hour.
"Hopefully we find people who want to work here 25 years and retire. That’s what we’re looking for," Bridwell said.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary efforts to keep store shelves stocked will continue during a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing.
"I think if you talk to most people here, they are modest," Bridwell said. "They’re just doing their jobs, is how they see it."
Hyland and others at the company see it differently.
"We don’t call them heroes," he said. "We call them superheroes."
We flew a drone over some of Milwaukee's busiest streets. Areas normally bursting with activity are now deserted due to stay-at-home orders. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel