Food workers union wants you to take responsibility for not spreading virus to frontline grocery employees

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By Cynthia Price

Saddened but not shocked by the report of four deaths in Michigan among grocery store workers, some members of the public may have started thinking as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic about the people who stock, wait on, and ring up groceries for the first time.

In addition to the heroic health care workers, grocery store employees are required to perform an essential service in conditions that may be less than ideal.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International  Union (UFCW) would like to see that changed.

The UFCW, America’s largest retail and food union, has launched the #ShopSmart campaign to keep the public’s attention on protecting themselves and grocery workers from contracting the virus.

UFCW International President Marc Perrone explained in a teleconference last week that the union has been approaching stores nationwide with  requests that they reconfigure in ways that will protect workers, such as installing plexiglass dividers and making grocery aisles one-way.

Because this campaign has been all over the board in terms of success, leaders decided that it would make sense to ask shoppers to institute practices for worker and self-protection too.

The campaign asks that customers:

    • always wear masks and gloves;
    • check temperatures and systems and not shop if they feel sick;
    • respect social distancing of at least six feet, including when a grocery store worker brings out new products;
    • not blame employees, particularly not in a confrontational way, when there are shortages; and
    • not discard masks and gloves in shopping carts, on the floor or in the parking lot.

The call included the testimony of a number of grocery workers throughout the U.S., including the hard-hit states of California, New York, and Michigan.

Aaron Squeo, who works in the meat department of a Kroger store in Roseville, was articulate about asking people to think when they shop, including addressing the reports ­– which had just come out the day before – of the deaths of four Kroger employees and one Meijer employee in Michigan.

“You can’t believe the impact it’s had on me and my coworkers,” he said quietly. “I mean we’re scared. Make sure you wear mask and gloves, make a mask
if you have to, and put them in a receptacle so our people don’t have to go out there and pick up this stuff. Also, limit who shops in the stores. I often see
whole families out there, including children.”

In an interview Thursday, a Meijer store worker who wishes to remain anonymous added, “I do think I’m threatened by what customers do, and don’t feel that people are wearing enough protection, even sometimes the employees.”

The employee explained that, in order to comply with the reduced capacity limits instituted by Governor Whitmer’s executive order, another employee stands at the door with a clicker to monitor how many have come in.

“At our store we haven’t come close to capacity, so we haven’t had people lining up outside. There are six-foot-apart squares in the checkout lines, and it’s mixed whether people follow them or not,” the employee said.

Meijer, whose stores in Michigan are all unionized, gave employees raises and increased their sick leave so they could stay home if they are ill.

But the UFCW has had many additional successes recently in gaining concessions from large retailers all across the U.S. They have also been successful with meat-packing and processing plants.

In addition, Michigan’s U.S. Senator Gary Peters has announced a “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” proposal, which would provide pandemic premium pay to reward, retain and recruit essential workers. Peters’ proposal is composed of two components: a $25,000 premium pay increase for essential health care workers, which would equate to a raise of $13 per hour from the start of the public health emergency until Dec. 31, 2020 and a $15,000 essential worker recruitment incentive to attract and secure the essential workforce, which includes workers at grocery stores.

A reporter from the Detroit Free Press asked on the teleconference whether the UFCW was asking retailers to provide free testing for grocery store workers, noting that it’s happening in some states.

Perrone answered, “I do think that free testing should be made available. Grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals are transmission points so it just seems sensible that you would do as much testing as you can.”

The UFCW sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control  “calling for mandatory guidance specifically for grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing facilities, during the COVID-19 outbreak,” an is working with a large grocery chain to call for grocery workers to receive temporary first responder status.

Perrone also unveiled an employee survey enumerating high numbers of workers saying that customers were hoarding, blaming, shouting at employees, and more.

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