The United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW) union is urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue standards that protect frontline workers in grocery stores, pharmacies and food processing plants — and the U.S. food and drug supply chain — from coronavirus.
In a letter sent yesterday to CDC Director Robert Redfield, UFCW called on the agency to institute detailed, mandatory guidelines on cleaning, sanitation and safety conditions in stores and facilities; social distancing; personal protective equipment (PPE); and safe shopping behaviors for customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“American workers in grocery stores, pharmacies and food production are on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak to make sure families have the food and medicine they need. Every day, these brave workers are in close contact with sometimes thousands of customers, increasing their own risk of becoming infected with the virus,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “With the growing threat of the coronavirus, we are urging the CDC to issue new mandatory guidance that standardizes safety protocols for grocery stores, pharmacies, food processing and meatpacking facilities.
Photo: UFCW International President Marc Perrone (Photo courtesy of Marc Perrone/UFCW)
“Given the nature of the threat, the CDC must also provide new guidelines for physical distancing, enhanced cleaning, disinfecting and hygiene practices, personal protective equipment and best practices for customers,” he noted.
To ensure physical distancing at grocery and drug stores, UFCW recommended that the CDC limit the number of customers at any given time to between 20% and 30% of a store’s capacity. Employees and customers should remain at least six feet apart, and stores should mark a “social distancing line” that starts six feet away from all checkout counters.
All workers at grocery stores and pharmacies also should be required to wear face masks, gloves and any other PPE available at the workplace, UFCW said. To that end, the CDC should mandate that all employers provide N95 face masks, gloves and other PPE when available.
Stronger cleaning and hygiene measures at stores, UFCW said, should include sufficient break times for workers to wash their hands as necessary or at least every 30 minutes; sanitizing of common touch points (such as point-of-sale terminals at checkout) throughout the day; and set times to allow stores to be properly sanitized and restocked. In addition, retailers should provide disinfecting wipes for cleaning of registers by cashiers and shopping carts by customers. One or more employees also should be designated to ensure adherence to CDC cleaning guidelines.
Meanwhile, the CDC should require customers to “shop smart” at food and drug stores during the coronavirus crisis by always covering their faces with a mask or cloth; practicing social distancing throughout the store, limiting number of shoppers to one per family, discard their PPE in trash cans and respecting special shopping times for seniors.
UFCW said the CDC can create a safe work environment at food processing and packing plants by requiring all employers provide PPE (including face masks) — and employees to wear protection during the work day. These facilities also should ensure social distancing practices are in effect where possible and that safety practices are clearly posted and in the necessary languages for employees to understand, the union added.
“It is absolutely critical that the CDC do more to help protect frontline workers who are at daily risk of becoming infected and even dying from the coronavirus. This is about not just saving the lives of these workers, but also about protecting the customers they serve,” according to Perrone. “It is about protecting and maintaining the safety of our food supply. Keeping these workers safe will help keep America safe. The CDC must act now to issue strong, new safety guidance. American lives are on the line. These workers’ lives are on the line. We cannot wait any longer.”
Washington, D.C.-based UFCW represents 1.3 million workers in grocery, meatpacking, food processing, retailing and other industries. On Tuesday, the union partnered with Albertsons Cos., the second-largest U.S. supermarket operator, in a national drive to classify grocery workers as emergency first responders as coronavirus continues to spread across the country. Albertsons and UFCW said aim to obtain a temporary designation of “extended first responders” or “emergency personnel” for grocery associates, which would enable those employees to be prioritized for testing and PPE.
The hazards that frontline grocery workers face amid the pandemic are being increasingly recognized nationwide as states and municipalities institute protection requirements for employees and customers of essential businesses. New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts are among the states and Los Angeles and Miami among the major cities doing so.
In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. Charlie Baker yesterday stepped up measures to promote social distancing at grocery stores. Each store now must limit customers and staff to 40% of its maximum permitted occupancy level (except stores with a maximum occupancy of less than 25 people). It also sets out procedures by which staff should monitor occupancy levels. The guidance builds on a March 23 order for grocery stores that set policies for store cleaning, employee hygiene, special hours for seniors and vulnerable shoppers, and curtailed hours of operation to enable workers to properly clean stores.
Both of Massachusetts’ senators also seen stronger protections for grocery workers and other essential employees. On Wednesday, Sen. Ed Markey (D.) called on the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bolster guidance for retail food industry workers and their customers during the coronavirus emergency. He noted that both agencies so far have provided only limited guidance.
“During this public health crisis, the CDC and FDA must take more aggressive action to protect workers in the retail food industry and consumers,” Markey said in an April 7 letter to CDC’s Redfield and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn. “Your agencies must ensure that all guidance is comprehensive, easy to find, and protects both workers and consumers.”
And in an April 8 New York Times editorial, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.) said Congress should establish an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” as part of its national response to coronavirus.
“Frontline workers — including health care, transit, farm, grocery, domestic and delivery workers — are putting their lives on the line to keep America functioning. They can’t rely on big business to protect them,” Warren wrote. “Instead, Congress must embrace an Essential Workers Bill of Rights: providing truly universal paid family and medical leave, ensuring all frontline workers have protective equipment to do their job safely, directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish emergency safety standards, funding hazard pay, and protecting workers’ rights to collective bargaining and to speak out about dangerous job conditions.”