President-elect Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief proposal, announced yesterday, drew plaudits from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and FMI-The Food Industry Association.
UFCW hailed the legislative package’s call for more coronavirus safety measures for essential frontline workers, including COVID-19 vaccines, as well as enhanced pandemic-related compensation and benefits, namely hazard pay for frontline grocery and retail workers.
Meanwhile, FMI credited the Biden plan’s focus on boosting the rate of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, an area where the grocery industry trade group said supermarkets can play a pivotal role. Fellow food retail trade organization the National Grocers Association, however, said the overall bill faces significant hurdles in Congress.
UFCW International yesterday noted that a number provisions in the American Rescue Plan seek more investment in protecting and supporting essential workers. Topping the list is hazard pay — retroactive and ongoing — for the extra efforts and risks faced by grocery store associates and other frontline employees in doing their jobs during a surging pandemic.
Biden’s proposal urges “employers to meet their obligations to frontline essential workers” by providing hazard pay.
“Essential workers — who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and Asian-American and Pacific Islander — have risked their lives to stock shelves, harvest crops and care for the sick during this crisis. They have kept the country running even during the darkest days of the pandemic,” the emergency legislative plan stated. “A number of large employers, especially in the retail and grocery sectors, have seen bumper profitability in 2020 and yet done little or nothing at all to compensate their workers for the risks they took. The president-elect believes these employers have a duty to do right by their frontline essential workers and acknowledge their sacrifices with generous back hazard pay for the risks they took across 2020 and up to today. He and the Vice President-elect [Kamala Harris] will call on CEOs and other business leaders to take action to meet these obligations.”
Another key element of the proposed bill, UFCW said, calls on Congress to authorize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a COVID-19 Protection Standard that covers a broad set of workers. The proposal also urges lawmakers to provide additional funding for OSHA enforcement to help safeguard vulnerable workers from coronavirus.
“Millions of Americans, many of whom are people of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers, continue to put their lives on the line to keep the country functioning through the pandemic,” the Biden plan said. “They should not have to lie awake at night wondering if they’ll make it home from work safely the next day, or if they’ll bring home the virus to their loved ones and communities.”
In addition, the president-elect’s proposal seeks expanded paid sick and family and medical leave — covering over 14 weeks — to help parents with added caregiving responsibilities when a child or loved one’s school or care center is closed, as well as for people with COVID-19 symptoms, caring for people with symptoms of the virus, or quarantining due to exposure. The leave also will extend to people needing to take time. off from work to get vaccinated against the disease.
“President-elect Biden’s COVID relief plan is a strong first step to taking control of the pandemic and providing Americans with the essential relief they need as this crisis continues,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone (left) said in a statement.
“With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, America’s essential workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants are more at risk than ever before and need action to support them on the frontlines. Despite the growing hazards these essential workers face, many companies in these industries have cut hazard pay and abandoned many of the safety measures still needed to protect workers on the job,” Perrone explained. “President-elect Biden’s plan puts essential workers first by creating a national COVID-19 safety standard to protect those on the frontlines, expanding paid sick leave for all workers, calling on companies to provide retroactive and ongoing hazard pay for essential workers, and increasing funding for COVID testing, PPE and vaccine distribution.”
Describing the current U.S. COVID-19 immunization efforts as “not sufficient to quickly and equitably vaccinate the vast majority of the U.S. population,” the Biden proposal would earmark $20 billion in a national vaccination program in partnership with states. To speed up administration of coronavirus vaccines, the plan aims to launch community vaccination centers nationwide, deploy mobile vaccination units to hard-to-reach areas and ensure free vaccine access for everyone.
And to help slow the spread of the virus, the American Rescue Plan would invest $50 billion in a major expansion of testing, including funds for rapid tests and support for local governments to implement regular testing protocols. “Despite innovations to improve testing, tests are still not widely available,” the plan said, adding that a key objective is to “ensure that any American can get a test for free when they need one.”
“We applaud President-Elect Biden’s proposal in his coronavirus relief package to get more shots in the arms of Americans,” stated Leslie Sarasin (left), president and CEO of FMI. “The importance of a convenient, efficient and safe process for administering COVID-19 vaccinations to essential workers and the general public as vaccine supplies increase cannot be overstated.”
Sarasin noted that supermarket pharmacies administered approximately 25% of the nation’s flu shots in 2020 and “stand ready to play a key role” in widening access to COVID-19 vaccinations. As part of the federal Operation Warp Speed coronavirus vaccine plan, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) partnered with large chain pharmacies across the food, drug and mass retail channel, and with independent pharmacy networks, to ensure broad consumer access to COVID immunizations.
Chains such as Kroger, Walmart, Albertsons, Publix, H-E-B, Hy-Vee and ShopRite already have begun administering COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, while others are ramping up their distribution of the vaccinations.
“Supermarket pharmacists and food industry workers have demonstrated their continued resilience to meet unprecedented expectations and demand,” added Sarasin. “While the general population awaits the COVID-19 vaccine, supermarkets are working diligently to continue to provide food, cleaning products and the full range of pharmacy products to support Americans’ health and well-being. Serving as knowledgeable and trusted wellness partners within their communities, supermarket pharmacies and food retailers will be essential to a successful COVID-19 vaccination plan.”
On Friday, Biden followed up his COVID-19 relief plan announcement with more details on his strategy to expedite vaccinations across the country. In a speech from Wilmington, Del., the president-elect called the current vaccine rollout "a dismal failure" and reiterated his goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in his administration's first 100 days. To that end, he said his administration will immediately work with states to open up vaccinations to more priority groups as well as harness federal government resources top ramp up the COVID vaccine supply and set up thousands of community vaccination centers, including 100 federally supported centers in his first 100 days.
Biden said his administration also will "fully activate" pharmacies nationwide to administer more vaccines as quickly as possible. "Millions of Americans turn to their local pharmacies every day for their medicines, flu shots and much more. We will immediately start a new major effort working directly with both independent and chain pharmacies to get America vaccinated," he noted. "This program will expand access in neighborhoods across the country so you can make an appointment and get your shot conveniently and quickly."
And as vaccinations are distributed, recipients will get more up-to-date information on the number of doses they'll be receiving and when, Biden added. "Right now, we are hearing that they can’t plan because they don’t know how much supply of vaccines they can expect and what time frame," he said. "That stops when we are in office."
Through late afternoon on Friday, the United States totaled more than 23.4 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 391,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
UFCW said those numbers include 374 frontline worker deaths and over 69,900 frontline workers infected or exposed from its 1.3 million membership, which covers employees in grocery stores, meatpacking, food processing, retail shops and other industries. A total of 124 grocery worker members have died and 25,760 have been infected or exposed to the virus. For meatpacking worker members, the number includes 131 deaths and 20,900 workers infected or exposed.
“Companies that employ essential workers, whether in grocery stores or meatpacking plants, must realize that they can no longer ignore health and safety concerns and the need for hazard pay,” Perrone commented. “For the sake of all essential and frontline grocery and food workers, Congress must now act quickly to build on the blueprint President-elect Biden’s COVID relief plan provides and pass a strong bipartisan bill that delivers the critical assistance that America’s essential workers need as this crisis continues.”
Robert Yeakel (left), director of government relations for NGA, noted that “time is of the essence” for the Biden camp in enacting COVID-19 relief.
“The incoming Biden administration is hoping to hit the ground running and usher through a quick response to the COVID-19 economic and public health crisis that has gripped the country for most of 2020,” Yeakel wrote in a blog post on Friday.
“For Biden and Congressional Democrats, the job won’t be easy, as they will need buy-in from Senate Republicans to get anything COVID-19-related across the finish line. And prospects of agreement on an aid package of the breadth and cost that Biden announced yesterday seem less than plausible. But there are some items of consensus that may lead both sides to some smaller deal,” he said. “However, getting to an agreement quickly has to be the priority as the last thing Biden or Democrats want is spending the first year of a new administration hammering out more COVID-19 relief, especially when they have their eyes set on much grander legislative ambitions.”
Steve Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), said Friday that pharmacies and their teams are "all in" for Biden's vaccination push.
“It remains our top priority to provide safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations, efficiently and equitably," Anderson said in a statement. “We greatly appreciate President-elect Biden’s thoughtful and determined remarks and his pledge to ‘fully activate the pharmacies across this country to get the vaccinations into more arms as quickly as possible.’ As we have indicated, pharmacies can meet the demand for 100 million vaccinations in one month, assuming that level of vaccine supply is available. Ninety percent of Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy."
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