Grocery worker COVID-19 infections and deaths have surged in recent weeks despite steady gains in vaccinations nationwide, according to United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW).
Since March 1, the number of grocery workers infected or exposed to coronavirus has climbed 24%, while deaths from the virus have jumped 30%, UFCW reported Thursday. The union said the upsurge follows store outbreaks at Whole Foods Markets, Costco Wholesale, Trader Joe’s and other grocery retail chains across the country.
Among UFCW members nationwide, there have been a total of 456 deaths from COVID-19 and at least 91,400 infections or exposures to the virus among frontline workers. UFCW said its latest estimates include 178 deaths and at least 39,900 infections or exposures among grocery workers; 132 deaths and 22,200 infections or exposures among meatpacking workers; and 50 deaths and 11,700 infections or exposures among food processing workers.
Overall, UFCW represents 1.3 million workers in the grocery store, meatpacking, food processing, health care, retail sectors, among other industries.
“America’s frontline essential workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants continue to face some of the highest risks of COVID exposure, and the need to strengthen vaccine access has never been more urgent,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “But too many states are failing to ensure essential food workers have vaccine access, as they continue to face barriers with the vaccine eligibility pool expanding.”
With some states seeing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases over the past couple of months, grocery retailers have maintained existing protections and social distancing guidelines for employees and customers but have shifted their focus to making vaccines readily accessible to associates — and encouraging them to get vaccinated.
A number of large chains are providing worker incentives to get a COVID shot, such as extra pay, bonuses, financial assistance, time off for the immunization, free rides to the vaccination site and/or other benefits. UFCW cited The Kroger Co., Aldi, Lidl, Publix Super Markets, Target and Trader Joe’s as some of the retailers incentivizing workers to go and get a COVID vaccine, while companies doing so in the meatpacking and food processing arenas include Chobani, Danone, JBS USA and Pilgrim’s Pride.
UFCW added that it also has secured on-site vaccinations for frontline workers at Albertsons Cos. supermarkets, CVS Pharmacy stores, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef, among other U.S. grocery retail and food industry employers.
The union, too, welcomed President Joe Biden’s plan to offer small businesses tax incentives for providing employees paid time off to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Under the measure, companies with fewer than 500 employees would receive a paid-leave tax credit to offset the cost of providing workers full pay for time needed to get COVID shot and recover from vaccination side effects.
“President Biden’s vaccine tax credits for small businesses are a critical step to ensure more of America’s essential workers can get the vaccine without losing a paycheck,” according to Perrone.
“As the union for essential food workers across the country, UFCW is joining President Biden in calling on all CEOs to guarantee paid leave for their frontline employees to get the vaccine. To keep our food supply secure as the pandemic continues, we need action now from every frontline business to eliminate the hurdles these workers face to getting vaccinated,” he added.
UFCW’s announcement comes as the Biden administration expects to meet its target of 200 million COVID-19 shots administered in 100 days on April 22. The president reached his original goal of 100 million shots in 100 days by day 58 of his administration.
“As we move into the vaccination campaign focused on working-age adults, one concern I’ve heard from so many Americans is that they can’t afford to take the time off to get vaccinated or lose a day’s work because they are feeling slightly under the weather after their shot. So today, I’m announcing a program to address that issue nationwide. I’m calling on every employer, large and small, in every state, to give employees the time off they need, with pay, to get vaccinated and any time they need, with pay, to recover if they are feeling under the weather after the shot,” Biden said in a press conference yesterday.
“No working American should lose a single dollar from their paycheck because they chose to fulfill their patriotic duty of getting vaccinated,” he noted. “We’re already seeing employers, large and small, stepping up to meet this historic moment. The grocery store Kroger offered employees $100 to get vaccinated. It helped push vaccination rates from 50% to 75% among their associates.”
Through the morning of April 21, 40.5% of the U.S. population had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, with 26.4% fully immunized, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. Among adults, 51.5% had received at least one dose and 33.8% have been fully vaccinated. Overall, nearly 216 million of the 277.9 million vaccines delivered by manufacturers have been administered.