With Thanksgiving shoppers packing grocery stores in the days leading up to the holiday, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, healthcare, retail and other industries, renewed its demand on retailers for improved COVID-19 protection and safety measures, as well as reinstating hazard pay programs for frontline workers.
During a press conference Monday afternoon, UFCW International President Marc Perrone noted, “America’s essential workers are facing a holiday season of unparalleled danger as COVID-19 cases explode across the country. With more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases in the past week, and deaths spiking to unprecedented levels, we are entering what could be the deadliest phase of this pandemic for millions of America’s essential frontline workers.” (For a video of the press conference, click below.)
UFCW reported that among the union’s members, there have been at least 350 frontline worker deaths – including 109 grocery worker deaths from COVID-19. In addition, the union reported there have been at least 48,000 frontline workers infected or exposed, including over 17,400 grocery workers infected or exposed to the virus.
“Simply put, frontline workers are terrified because their employers and our elected leaders are not doing enough to protect them and stop the spread of this virus,” said Perrone. “As holiday shopping begins this Thanksgiving, we are already seeing a huge surge of customer traffic. Unless we take immediate actions beginning this holiday week, many more essential workers will become sick and more, tragically, will die.
“As this threat of this pandemic grows, so will the threat to our communities – and our food supply. Given the spikes in Covid-19 cases and deaths we are all witnessing, it is time for our elected leaders and this nation’s food and retail CEOs to take immediate action.”
Perrone outlined new initiatives the union is taking to pressure retailers and elected leaders, including the Holiday Shop Smart Campaign, a customer safety education effort targeting regions with major COVID-19 spikes, and a call on the nation’s governors to immediately adopt stronger and uniform COVID-19 safety standards at all food and retail stores across the entire country.
Most significantly, UFCW is sending a letter to top retail and grocery CEOs outlining the following priorities to support workers for as long as the current spike in cases persists. These include:
• Free Covid-19 testing for frontline workers
• Free PPE for frontline workers
• Mask enforcement for all customers at all stores
• Paid sick leave for all frontline workers sick or exposed
• Hazard pay immediately reinstated for all frontline workers
• Freeze all stock buybacks by companies until this pandemic is under control.
Several frontline workers shared their concerns during the press conference. Rachel Fournier, a Ralphs grocery cashier in Los Angeles and UFCW Local 770 member, said, “"With Thanksgiving and holidays coming, and California's new lockdown, stores are getting more crowded as people stock up. But store managers refuse to prevent unsafe numbers of customers from entering the store. At our store, a sensor at the front entrance is supposed to alert us to when the store is overcrowded, but that sensor does not seem to work at all. There is no social distancing or effort to enforce proper mask wearing by customers either. And we are constantly running out of sanitizer and wipes. Cashiers are left to order these things themselves.
She added, “Companies like Kroger, Whole Foods and Albertsons still refuse to provide hazard pay for frontline workers, despite the reality that the risks from COVID-19 are worse now than when they provided pandemic pay back in April. How does that make sense? Are our lives worth less now? This has been so upsetting for all of us who are still on the frontlines of this pandemic. Hazard work deserves hazard pay."
Janet Wainwright, a Kroger grocery worker in Yorktown, Va., said that every day since the beginning of the pandemic, she goes to work afraid. “As Thanksgiving and holiday shopping approach, social distancing is now an even bigger problem,” she noted. “Customers crowd the store and managers refuse to limit the number allowed inside. The important things that were done in the spring, like frequent sanitizing and cleaning or checking employee temperatures, are just not happening like they used to.
“I believe in what I’m doing,” she added. “We are helping feed families in our community. We’re proud of our jobs. But you can’t treat people like this. You can’t ask someone to risk their lives and deny them hazard pay. Value our lives, not just your bottom line. Because this terrible pandemic is not going away, and our lives matter!”
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