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Grocery shopping in 2020 is an emotional roller coaster.

After strapping on your mask and thoroughly sanitizing your cart, you plot out the quickest, most efficient way to navigate the store, grab your items, and get out. Every surface looms like a germ-covered threat, you hold your breath when people pass, and you go to great lengths to ensure you don’t get too close to fellow shoppers — exchanging pointed, disapproving glances the second someone disregards the one-way aisle arrow.

No matter how careful you are, maintaining distance from your fellow shoppers isn’t always possible. And an incessantly beeping 140-pound hunk of plastic and metal with googly eyes hovering by your side and blocking the aisles certainly doesn’t make things easier.

The coronavirus pandemic has proven unequivocally that human grocery workers are essential, but it’s also made it plainly clear that Marty the grocery store robot is the opposite of essential.

Customers checking out Marty the robot in May 2019 at a Stop & Shop in Quincy, MA.David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Marty was introduced by Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s Netherlands-based parent company. They put these robots, which cost a whopping $35,000 each, in hundreds of Stop & Shops and other stores throughout the U.S. in 2019. The robots have been a source of problems since their arrival, but as the pandemic has reshaped the shopping experience complaints that Marty prevents proper social distancing have started to pop up.

When states began issuing stay-at-home orders in March, panicked shoppers flooded stores to stock up on supplies. The robots were initially pulled off the floors to prioritize customer safety, but then gradually reintroduced over the next two months. Though all robots have been fully operational since late May, customers and workers alike feel that Marty has been, at best, completely useless during the pandemic or, at worst, has made shopping and working significantly harder.

Stop & Shop has marketed the robots as in-store safety devices. (They’re meant to detect and report hazards on the floor, but they can’t actually remove them.) So if an autonomous robot can’t help shoppers or frontline workers in the middle of a crisis, what’s the point?

As grocery workers continue to fight for hazard pay and risk coronavirus exposure on the job, they’re calling on their company and their customers to recognize that human contributions in this pandemic have far outweighed the contributions of grocery store robots like Marty.

A CRASH COURSE IN MARTY MADNESS

Marty robots were rolled out last year after Stop & Shop cut back on staffing and made their financial problems clear. This led workers to fear future tech-related job elimination. While some tech-dazzled adults and impressionable children do find Marty fascinating or charming, shoppers and employees have largely come to see the robot as more of a problem than a problem solver.

“He’s a pain in the ass,” said Don, a Stop & Shop employee who’s been with the company for more than 30 years. (Don asked to withhold his last name for privacy reasons.) “That’s not my perspective, it’s everybody for the most part. Customers cannot stand him. He’s always in the way… I even hear managers complaining about what a pain in the neck it is, but they have to play along. They have no choice.”

Joe, who’s also been working at Stop & Shop for more than 30 years, told Mashable that sometimes the robot even has trouble doing his one extremely simple job. (Joe also asked to withhold his last name for privacy concerns.)

“We had a shopper pick up a thing of sugar. And the bag had a hole in it so the sugar got all over the floor, but you can’t see it. Marty walked right through it and never said a word. A customer pointed it out to us,” Joe explained. “You know how slippery [sugar] is on those wax floors?”

Joe noted that although Marty misses major hazards, the robot will occasionally summon workers to remove extremely small, inconsequential threats, such as a marker, an errant bit of produce, or a twist tie.

“The sugar was something that was definitely a real hazard — somebody could have gotten hurt badly. And he walked right through it,” Joe said. “That just goes to show you that they’re full of bologna.”

Imagining Marty outside, unable to even wrangle a shopping cart.Mashable composite: Getty / Boston Globe, Charles Gullung

Whenever workers see Marty, they’re reminded of how heavily invested Stop & Shop is in these pieces of useless technology that have done nothing but create more work on the floor and make customers feel unsafe during this global health crisis. It’s hard for employees to forget the substantial amount of money the company dropped to deploy hundreds of robots — money that could have been used to pay human beings. Going forward, they want to ensure that Stop & Shop puts people first always, not just during a pandemic.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) — the labor union that represents 1.3 million workers, including more than 900,000 grocery workers at chains like Stop & Shop, Giant Food Stores, and Ralphs — knows that not all technology is bad for workplaces, but the general fear that robots can signal an intention to replace workers is extremely justified. Amazon’s move towards cashierless self-checkouts is just one example of how companies can use tech to phase out jobs that once belonged to human employees. Union reps and grocery store workers have seen the ways in which artificial intelligence, automation, robots, and other smart technology can negatively impact human jobs, and though they’re open to future tech rollouts, they’d like a say in the decisions and the power to protect themselves from tech-related job elimination down the line.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, MARTY IS OUT

Workers never considered Marty to be much of a help on regular workdays. After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and states started to lock down, however, the robots were taken off the floor entirely — docked in their charging stations, and silently classified as non-essential workers.

“They put him in his corner,” Don explained. “It was definitely a good two months before we ever saw Marty again.”

Maura O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, confirmed that Marty was temporarily sidelined. “When Stop & Shop stores began to see unprecedented customer traffic in March and April, Marty’s operation was put on pause temporarily,” O’Brien said in a statement to Mashable. “During that pause, changes in our stores were made in response to COVID-19 to help keep our associates and customers safe, including the closure of certain self-service departments and common areas and the institution of one-way aisles.”

A look at Marty near his charging station.Nicole Gallucci / Mashable

While Marty was off the floor, Stop & Shop’s human workers were expected to carry out business as usual. Millions of grocery store employees like Don — who never imagined they’d have to put their lives on the line at their jobs — were told that they, like medical professionals and first responders, were essential workers. So they cautiously reported to stores while restaurants, bars, movie theaters, salons, and a variety of other businesses closed their doors until public gatherings were deemed safe again.

Over the past nine months, Stop & Shop has developed and implemented a series of COVID-19 safety protocols designed to protect workers and customers in stores. In addition to instituting one-way aisles to promote social distancing, stores have installed plastic barriers at service counters and cash registers, ramped up cleaning procedures, and provided workers with PPE, including gloves, face masks, and face shields.

“Ensuring that our associates continue to have the necessary tools to protect themselves and our customers has remained a top priority for Stop & Shop,” O’Brien assured Mashable. But in the early days of the pandemic, grocery store employees were terrified to go to work.

As March progressed, COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the United States and experts struggled to understand the virus. Unsure of how long lockdowns would last, panicked shoppers started flooding stores to stock up on supplies like bread, milk, eggs, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning products. Stores were placing limits on items but still getting wiped out of goods, and the more people shopped the more workers feared for their safety.

An empty paper product aisle at a Stop & Shop in Pembroke, MA on March 26, 2020.Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Image

Michele, who has worked at Stop & Shop for 10 years, was extremely worried in the six weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Michele, who asked to go by a different name for privacy concerns, explained that though her Connecticut store didn’t have face masks in the early days, workers were given face shields and gloves. But the supplies didn’t quell her fear.

“It was crazy because you just didn’t know. You heard of so many people getting sick, and I have my daughter and my grandkids. I just worried about everybody. And myself too, because I have a compromised immune system,” she said.

Many employees, including Don, were grateful to be working and earning a paycheck while millions of other people were out of work. But the relief over job stability didn’t take away from personal safety concerns.

“It was kind of mixed emotions at the beginning. It’s obviously nerve wracking, because you’re afraid. You’re going to work every day thinking, ‘Is this the day I’m gonna get it? Is tomorrow the day I’m gonna get it? Am I gonna get it?'” he said.

THE FIGHT FOR PANDEMIC HAZARD PAY

While Stop & Shop negotiated in good faith, workers fear the company might have been less generous with hazard pay had it not been for their big 11-day strike in 2019. After approximately 31,000 Stop & Shop workers protested at more than 240 New England stores, they received overwhelming support from shoppers and political leaders. Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, all backed the cause, and Vice President Joe Biden, even spoke at a rally in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on April 18. A new contract was ratified in May 2019, which awarded union employees better benefits, but if the pandemic had happened before winning these provisions working conditions might be even grimmer today.

Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a rally outside of a Dorchester, Massachusetts Stop & Shop on April 18, 2019.JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP via Getty Images

“Let’s face it, the increased business and profits that the company is realizing because of this pandemic? They’re loving it,” Don, who’s on the executive board of his local union and has been a steward for 21 years, said. “So I wonder how that would have played into negotiations?”

“I’m glad it happened this way and not the other way around. If the pandemic happened first and then this we would have been in big trouble,” Michele, who was on the negotiating committee at the time of the strike, said.

Though workers are grateful for the hazard pay, they believe they shouldn’t have to beg for extensions. They know that Stop & Shop needs them to keep working, and they feel the extra money should continue as long as the pandemic puts their lives in danger.

“This thing is not over,” Joe said. “We are still going into work every day, doing our job, taking chances, because there are hundreds of people coming through the store every day. That pay is just a little assurance that they realize what we’re doing. We are keeping them together. Without us they’re in serious trouble.”

Joe is right. Coronavirus cases are spiking in the United States again. The New York Times reports that related deaths are increasing — with an average of more than 1,200 deaths per day as updated on Nov. 20. As we approach the holidays and people pack stores and plan celebrations, those numbers are also expected to rise.

WORKERS WANT PRIORITY OVER ROBOTS

Nine months into the pandemic, grocery workers have never been more confident in their worth.

The fact that management docked Marty at the first sign of trouble spoke volumes to workers, as did the complaints that started rolling in as soon as the robot returned to floors. As far as workers are concerned, the pandemic proved what they long knew to be true: Marty is verifiably irrelevant.

As grocery workers continue to put their lives on the line to show up for the job, they’re more determined than ever to fight for a better workplace. They want the company to value and invest in humans. They don’t want them dropping obscene amounts of money on a giant fleet of useless robots or throwing elaborate birthday parties for those robots — who, of course, lack emotions and are incapable of internalizing praise. The company claims to value their employees, but that assertion falls flat when they continue to ignore their workforce’s complaints about the technology that workers fear was created, in part, to replace them.

When asked if Stop & Shop believes the contributions of human workers have outweighed those of Marty during the pandemic, the company took a clear stance.

“There is no question that the efforts of our associates during the COVID-19 pandemic have far outweighed any technology we rely on in our stores,” O’Brien said. “Their efforts to serve our communities were extraordinary, and we are incredibly proud of what they accomplished during an unprecedented time in our company’s history. We continue to prioritize their health and safety — and to implement extensive measures to help ensure all our stores and facilities are safe.”

O’Brien also explained that Stop & Shop has invested more than $110 million during the pandemic “in increased pay, extended healthcare and leave benefits, access to PPE and other measures to recognize the efforts of our store associates and to help keep them safe.”

But when asked about complaints related to the robot’s inability to social distance, Stop & Shop defended the technology. Though employees stress that Marty is useless and creates additional work, the company insists these robots keep stores safer for customers and prevent workers from having to walk the floors to check for hazards.

The spokeswoman did note that “Facilitating social distancing among customers remains a high priority as we head into the busy holiday season,” explaining that Marty has been programmed with new store “maps” to help him better navigate the aisles. However, she also revealed that Stop & Shop is considering docking Marty in select locations ahead of Thanksgiving, which, again, signals that the company is well aware the robot gets in the way, even if they won’t publicly admit it.

Marty making his way down a produce aisle.DAVID L. RYAN / THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Stop & Shop’s messaging remains mixed, but as workers reflect on the tremendous efforts and sacrifices they’ve made in the past nine months, they’re calling on the company to side with the essential human workers.

“Things are still not normal,” Joe said when asked what he’d like Stop & Shop to know. “Put Marty to bed. I mean, really. The only thing he does is get in the way, and he forces customers to move and get in your way. They can’t social distance.”

When asked if she feels Marty has been an essential worker during the pandemic, Michele said “no” three times before laughing and letting out a firm, “Oh, definitely no.”

“Oh, god no,’ Don said when asked the same question. “Obviously the company proved their own point. They said he was non-essential by parking him for two months. They themselves were admitting that he would be in the way with the increased buying from people in the stores.”

“We got up every day during this pandemic and took care of customers and risked our lives and our safety,” Joe said. “What did Marty do? What did Marty do for the company? Nothing.”

“What? Go around the store looking for a spill?”

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