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(CNN Business) --
(CNN Business) --
Sam Dancy, one of the country's millions of essential workers, has seen a lot during his 30 years at the QFC supermarket chain in Seattle.
But the omicron variant is taking it to the limit.
Dancy is a supervisor for the store's cash registers, self-checkout kiosks, customer service, and liquor departments.
At the end of December, he worked 11 days straight due to staffing shortages caused by the spread of the highly contagious variant of covid-19, omicron.
Now, the rapid spread of omicron is putting new pressure on essential workers who were already exhausted after nearly two years working during a deadly pandemic.
But unlike millions of office workers, they cannot stay home and earn a living.
Staffing at the store where Dancy works is at its worst level since the start of the pandemic, even lower than during the first wave in March 2020, said the 62-year-old shop steward of the United Food and Commercial Workers local union.
Employees have resigned in recent months and management has not replaced them, he added.
The store has had to close early on some days due to staffing limitations.
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The latest wave of workers calling in sick adds additional responsibilities for Dancy and the employees who have to keep shelves stocked, assist customers and complete other tasks.
Some customers also shop without wearing a mask, which makes them feel insecure.
"Every day has been a struggle," Dancy said.
"I feel like I'm pushing myself too hard. I'm constantly tired."
Two weeks ago, he worked on a crowded Sunday when the store was understaffed.
"It was the first time in 30 years that I thought, 'I don't know how much more I can and want to do this.'"
A spokesman for Kroger-owned QFC said in an email that the chain offers workers comprehensive benefits packages, including an average hourly wage of $18.72.
QFC, with about 60 stores, is also actively hiring.
QFC said it works closely with health officials to create a safe working and shopping environment and slow the spread of covid-19.
"I can't stay home" because I'm an essential worker
The demographics of the more than 30 million frontline essential workers differ significantly from those who can work remotely.
About 29% of white workers can work from home, according to an Economic Policy Institute study in 2020. But fewer than one in five black workers and about one in six Hispanic workers can work from home.
Blue-chip industries disproportionately include women and people of color, and they are overrepresented in many jobs within those industries, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research 2020 report.
For example, women, who make up 47.4% of the nation's overall workforce, make up 50.5% of the nearly seven million supermarket workers.
Blacks make up 11.9% of the workforce, but make up 14.2% of grocery store employees.
The latest surge in covid-19 has caused many workers to get sick while others call because their child care plans are changing due to some schools closing again.
And some employees are staying home because they fear contracting the virus at work.
Facing staffing strains, retailers like Macy's have reduced their hours of operation.
Grocery and retail store workers have faced challenges and safety risks during the pandemic: They are paid low wages and often work for companies without robust paid sick leave policies or benefits.
They have also dealt with angry and sometimes violent customers refusing to wear masks, shoplifting and store shootings.
These factors have contributed to the millions of job vacancies in the industry, as well as labor shortages across the country.
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The companies' response
Despite the rapid spread of omicron, most major retail chains have not reinstated many of the steps they took earlier in the pandemic, such as offering hazard pay to workers or requiring customers to wear masks.
Hesitant to impose mandates, they have also not required frontline workers to get vaccinated.
Industry groups have sued to block the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for large employers.
Rather, companies are offering cash bonuses and other incentives to encourage workers to get vaccinated.
And while many companies have raised wages, inflation has erased at least half of average wage gains for frontline workers, according to analysis last month by the Brookings Institute.
"Very few earn enough money to survive," the researchers said.
Mariah Molina, who works at a Target store in Lynchburg, Virginia, filling customers' curbside pickup and online delivery orders, said she is struggling to keep up as omicron decimates staffing levels.
"We still get a lot of orders every day. It's harder because we don't have as many people to help us," said Molina, a member of the Target Workers Unite advocacy group.
Morale is low in the store, he noted, and his co-workers are frustrated and overworked.
She thinks Target should give employees hazard pay to reward them for working in tough conditions.
A Target spokesperson said in an email that the company made a $1 billion investment last year in its staff, including salary increases and bonuses.
Target also said it recently exceeded its goal of hiring 100,000 temporary workers during the holidays and 30,000 permanent supply chain workers.
After working at Target since the start of the pandemic, Molina has begun looking for jobs outside of the retail and service industries.
"It would be a lot less stressful and a lot less physically demanding," he said.