United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) has refuted a claim by Teamsters Local 120 that the company’s hiring of temporary workers at its Hopkins, Minn., warehouse infringed on coronavirus safety measures.
Teamsters Local 120, based in Blaine, Minn., said yesterday that four of its members who work in UNFI’s Hopkins warehouse have confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19, and others also may be infected. Local 120 President Tom Erickson reported that the warehouse had no confirmed cases two weeks ago.
According to Troy Gustafson, business agent for Local 120, UNFI’s management may have contributed to the situation at the facility by bringing in temp workers from around the nation and not vetting them for the virus. The union said it’s now calling on Minnesota health officials to step in “before the state’s grocery supply is affected.”
“Last week, UNFI brought in temporary workers from all over the country to pick orders, literally from all over the country. To our knowledge, they were not tested or quarantined prior to coming in, and they are not social distancing or following established safety protocols at the warehouse,” Gustafson explained. “Now we are seeing more positive cases arise. If something isn’t done fast, this could be the next COVID-19 hotbed in Minnesota, and we could see a major disruption in food supply here.”
Valerie Marsh, vice president and deputy general counsel for labor relations at UNFI, said yesterday that the Providence, R.I.-based distributor has hired more than 50 full-time associates at the Hopkins warehouse since mid-March and aims to fill another 30 full-time openings “under union-supported terms.” She noted that the workforce additions have not negatively impacted the comprehensive COVID-19 protections in effect at the facility.
“To ensure we keep food flowing to grocery stores and households across the Midwest, we partnered with a nationally recognized, safety-focused provider of subcontracted warehouse services to support near-term demand and maintain customer service levels. UNFI is honoring all aspects of its agreement with Local 120, and the decision to temporarily subcontract certain warehouse services doesn’t impact any associate’s job security,” Marsh said in a statement.
“It’s completely disingenuous for Local 120’s leadership to now question our unwavering commitment to safety, particularly in light of the fact that union leaders commended us as recently as last week for our proactive response to the pandemic and are well-aware that UNFI’s robust cleaning, safety and risk management protocols have helped limit COVID-19 cases in Hopkins and across the nation,” she added. “We are continuing to utilize CDC guidance and standards for safety, and all of our associates, customers and stakeholders can trust that we’re continuing to work around the clock with distribution center leaders and partners to sustain best-in-class protocols at all of our facilities.”
Local 120’s Erickson, however, said the influx of outside workers may have exposed existing employees at the Hopkins warehouse to COVID-19 and, if more cases of the virus surface, the facility’s operation could be affected. Overall, the union local represents nearly 12,000 workers — including freight drivers and warehouse, foodservice and dairy employees, among others — in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“This could escalate quickly if the company doesn’t wake up,” Erickson (left) stated. “Instead of following safety protocols, they decided to bring in workers from all over the country, which not only increases the risk of potential exposure to our workers but also amplifies the potential impact on the state’s grocery supply. It’s outrageous and irresponsible. Immediate action must be taken to protect the well-being and safety of our workers.”
UNFI reported that it has implemented extensive coronavirus safety practices companywide, including at the Hopkins warehouse. Efforts include heightened protocols to safeguard health, such as enhanced on-site sanitation; hiring professional cleaning companies to disinfect facilities; social distancing measures such as partitions, decals and signs; requiring associates to wear face coverings, which can be provided upon request; the rollout of on-site, pre-shift temperature screening to more distribution centers; and providing thermometers for at-home use to ensure staff are fever-free before reporting to work.
The distributor also has instituted “drop and go” protocols for drivers arriving at retail stores and stepped up COVID-19 safety measures at its retail stores. On the employee support side, the company said it has implemented a remote working policy for most office functions, provided more flexibility in paid-time-off policies, covered coronavirus testing expenses, and provided coverage for COVID-19 illness or quarantine directed by UNFI or a regulatory agency. All associates, too, are urged to practice COVID-19 safety away from the workplace, and the company said it has regularly communicated with employees throughout the pandemic, including the distribution of informative material in multiple languages.
“Since before the onset of the pandemic, UNFI has been taking extraordinary steps to maintain vigorous safety and risk management protocols that help protect our valued associates,” Marsh said. “We’ve made protective gear and equipment widely available, while providing paid leave to associates directly impacted by the pandemic. We continue to encourage associates to stay home — without any fear of losing their jobs — when they are ill or need to take care of household family members affected by this crisis. It’s regrettable that Local 120’s leaders want to ignore these facts and try to undermine efforts to keep America fed during this challenging time.”
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