The United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union has launched a national multimedia campaign, called #ShopSmart, that urges grocery shoppers to wear protection and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) between themselves and store associates.
Announced Monday, #ShopSmart includes an advertising campaign with digital and television commercials. The public safety effort comes in response to the rising number of food and grocery workers being exposed to the virus, as well as the direct threat that the pandemic presents to the U.S. food supply, UFCW said. The Washington, D.C.-based food and retail union represents more than 900,000 grocery workers across the country.
“This is not union versus non-union, nor is it about politics or party. This is about life or death. Workers are being exposed and they are dying,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a press call this morning. “We’ve seen the deaths of grocery workers from Walmart, Trader Joe’s and food plants. As of today, based on our most recent estimates, at least 30 of our members have died across all industries, and nearly 3,000 are no longer at work because they’ve been exposed to somebody who’s sick or they’re sick themselves.”
The estimated number of deaths and exposed workers is based on reports from UFCW local unions and includes those who have tested positive for COVID-19, missed work because of self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, have been hospitalized or are symptomatic, the union reported.
Also speaking on the call were five grocery store workers from Kroger, Safeway and Vons (Albertsons Cos.), Stop & Shop (Ahold Delhaize USA) and Homeland Stores, who shared stories about customers not following recommended COVID-19 safety practices, including shopping without face coverings and/or gloves, ignoring physical distancing indicators and disregarding one-way aisles.
“Given the millions of Americans in the retail food industry, it is clear that unless something changes quickly, more and more of these workers — both union and non-union will become sick, get exposed or die,” Perrone said. “Now I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.”
Indeed, the tone among the grocery workers on the press call was one of fear. At the same time, they exhibited dedication to serving shoppers also stressed by the COVID-19 outbreak and keeping the nation’s food stores running.
“This is real for us. It may sound strange to say, but we are on the front lines every day. We are seeing more customers than ever before. Traffic has never been higher, and that scares us when some customers don’t do what is necessary to keep everyone safe,” said Jane St. Louis, a grocery worker and UFCW Local 400 member at a Safeway store in Damascus, Md.
“I want to be sure that everyone is safe. I want my customers to be safe and my co-workers to be safe. We can’t afford to see grocery stores shutting down or workers becoming too sick to work,” explained St. Louis, who has been with Safeway for 27 years. “Let me just stress one thing that is really concerning to me. One of the biggest problems I’ve noticed is customers not wearing masks and not practicing safe social distancing with each other and with our workers. This is really important. Some customers understand, but others seem to not appreciate how important social distancing is for their safety and ours. Please, for the sake of all our safety, wear a mask or face covering when you go shopping in the grocery store. We worry about your health and we also worry about the health of other families.”
Aaron Squeo, a UFCW 876 member who works in the meat department at a Kroger supermarket in Madison Heights, Mich., said the danger posed by coronavirus means Americans must change how they shop.
“I know grocery workers who’ve tested positive for it, and I know of one member in my area who’s died of the virus. And you can’t believe the impact it has had on me and my co-workers. I mean, we’re all scared. We’re worried for ourselves, our family and our community. We don’t want to spread the virus,” Squeo said. “It’s important for every customer to do their part in making shopping safe for everybody.”
UFCW spotlighted employees’ concerns in a survey of more than 5,000 grocery and food workers. Of those polled, 85% said customers aren’t practicing social distancing, and 81% have seen shoppers hoarding groceries and other supplies.
Shoppers’ rush to stock up and get in and out of the supermarket quickly also has sometimes resulted in poor behavior toward toward store staff. Sixty-two percent of workers surveyed said customers have blamed employees for shortages, and 43% reported instances of shoppers shouting at employees. Twenty-nine percent of respondents agreed that customers treated them somewhat poorly or very poorly.
“I have never seen a crisis like this. I have seen firsthand the fear and concern that people in the community have and my co-workers have over catching this virus,” said Janifer Suber, a UFCW Local 324 member and 20-year employee at Vons in Lakewood, Calif. “To be honest, we worry about it every day. We also know that our customers and community are relying on us like never before. But for us to do our job, we really need them to help keep us in other space.”
When asked in the UFCW survey what grocery retailers should do to improve customer safety and treatment of store associates, 72% cited a limit on the number of shoppers in stores. Respondents also supported store bans on unruly customers (49%) and the hiring of more security (41%) and more workers to help meet demand (26%). Also, 23% backed ads featuring customer safety tips.
“Here are a couple of things customers can do to shop smarter than ever before,” Super added. “Not discarding gloves or masks in the parking lot or in empty carts, because workers have to handle these items to throw them out and that increases the risk for the workers. Don’t make multiple trips. Bring a list ahead of time so that you don’t forget certain items and have to spend more time in the store than you need. Considering how important groceries are right now, I can’t stress enough how important it is for every customer to help stop the spread of this virus and make it safe for everyone to shop.”
Perrone pointed out during the call that, whereas tens of millions of Americans have been able to work from home during the coronavirus crisis, grocery store and food workers didn’t have that choice.
“For me and my team here at our store, this crisis has really challenged all of us. We’re not used to this volume that we’ve come across lately,” said UFCW Local 1000 member Dusty Gearhard, who has worked as a meat market manager at Homeland in Oklahoma City for almost 20 years. “We have blizzards and holidays and snowstorms, but those might be short-lived. This is a continuing trend we’re dealing with here, and we’re working harder than ever. And our workers are scared. They’re scared of catching the virus. Unlike a lot of other workers across the country, we don’t have the option to work from home.”
UFCW Local member Greg Finch, a 15-year Stop & Shop worker in Queens, N.Y., said customers have expressed thanks to store associates for coming to work and helping to keep stores in operation during this difficult time. Still, he noted, customers must understand the “level of seriousness” of the situation and do their part to ensure everyone’s safety.
“I do work in one of the hardest-hit areas and, to be truthful, while I maintain my composure while I’m here at work, the fear that we feel here is absolutely real. We worry about catching this virus and possibly taking it home to our loved ones,” Finch said. “Unfortunately, we don't have a choice. We have to work. This job is essential to help New Yorkers right now who are going through the struggle dealing with COVID-19. The only thing I can say is, we’re asking for everybody out there to help protect themselves and all of us.”
Perrone said that when UFCW asked grocery and food workers if they were to pick one word to describe how they feel when they go to work nowdays, the most common answers were “scared, anxious, worried and stressed.”
“Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic represents a clear and present danger to our food workers and the nation’s food supply, and this danger will only continue to grow unless our elected and political leaders act and the public changes their behavior when they shop to help protect our food workers. Here’s what we’ve done at the state level,” he said.
“So even as the UFCW ramps up our efforts to make our leaders act,” Perrone added, “we’re going to launch this nationwide #ShopSmart initiative to mobilize the American people to help stop the spread of this virus.”
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